Discussion Group: Traversing Cosmovision(s): Notes to an English Rendition of a 16th Century Nahuatl Song of War, ‘Icuic Nezahualpilli’

The sixteenth century Indigenous (Nahuatl) poem from Central Mexico, ‘Icuic Nezahualpilli’ (the 68th song in Ms. Cantares mexicanos, Biblioteca Nacional, fols. 55v-56r) maps the procession of Indigenous forces in a specific pre-Hispanic military campaign known as xochiayaotl or ‘flower wars.’ Reflecting upon the process of translating the poem into English, this talk explores possible new meanings which can be accessed by approaching the poem as an oral history.

‘Icuic Nezahualpilli’ acts as a case-study from which to remark upon some key aspects of translating sixteenth century, Nahuatl-language texts. This includes linguistic phenomena such as difrasismo or the pairing of two words to form a single metaphoric unit of meaning. As well as multivocality or the notion coined by Camilla Townsend that ‘to the Nahua mind, any higher truth was inherently multiple—how else could a narration inspire the loyalty of all elements of a fractured group of people?’

Finally, the talk will place the act of translating ‘Icuic Nezahualpilli’ in context of three broader questions animating Indigenous literary criticism posed by Karl Kroeber. The first question is text specific. To what extent does the translator or transcriber have a basis in the source language and/or endeavor to remain faithful to what the Indigenous storyteller has narrated? The second is genre-specific: can any written text faithfully reproduce an oral performance and/or oral history? The third is critic-specific: to what extent does the researcher acknowledge the inevitable ambiguities of any translation of a text that reflects a vanished culture or moment?


Javaria Abbasi is a Clarendon Scholar and DPhil candidate in Medieval and Modern Languages (Spanish) at Merton College, Oxford. She holds an MPhil from Oxford and a BA from the University of Virginia. Her dissertation is tentatively entitled ‘The Black and Red of the Ancients: Reevaluating Colonial Space in Early Modern Mexico (1520-1700).’ It builds upon her undergraduate thesis which won the William Lee Miller prize for its analysis of hybrid Spanish and Indigenous visual cultures in 16th century Hapsburg maps. Javaria holds a short-term fellowship (2023-2024) from Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library where she will be in residence for Trinity Term of 2024.