Amber Brian and The Native Archive

In the first of the 2016 Spring Translation Talks hosted by Iowa’s Translation Workshop, Amber Brian drew us into the captivating world of a centuries-old manuscript and the thorny questions of history and representation. Brian opened her talk with a gripping, novel-esque anecdote of how the 17th-century manuscript, a history of pre-Columbian and conquest-era Mexico rendered by Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (yes, she pronounced his name effortlessly), resurfaced in an auction and was shockingly purchased for a mysterious millionaire’s private collection, then miraculously showed up, months later, in the hands of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico (I might be slightly dramatizing this story, but my, was I hooked!). Meandering through the notions of historiography and language, we were reminded that there is always more than meets the eye when it comes to translating a text.

Brian detailed the process of the project—collaborative work done with colleagues Bradley Benton of North Dakota State University, Pablo Garcia Loaeza of West Virginia University, and Peter Villella of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro—of this original manuscript, the task to “set it on its path” in a new context. It is now available in English as The Native Conquistador: Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Account of the Conquest of New Spain (2015, Penn State U. Press). In this text, Ixtlilxochitl narrates the conquest of Mexico from Hernando Cortés’s arrival in 1519 through his expedition into Central America in 1524. The protagonist of the story, however, is not the Spanish conquistador but Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s great-great-grandfather, the native prince Ixtlilxochitl of Tetzcoco.

With the Native Conquistador translation completed and published, Brian and colleagueshave begun a new project, translating another text by Ixtlilxochitl. Funded by a 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Scholarly Editions and Translations grant, the group will collaborate over a three-year period to translate Rise of the Chichimeca: Translation of Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl's History of Ancient Mexico.

Calling on translation heavyweights such as Walter Benjamin and Lawrence Venuti, Brian illuminated both the science and the art of translating. She also touched on the much-coveted topic for us translation nerds: that of punctuation and navigating a text in a language with unconventional punctuation—or in Brian's case, a text which completely foregoes punctuation. “A 21st-century reader is not going to tolerate that,” she said, to a room full of grammar enthusiasts delightfully nodding in agreement. As with any translation talk, I was hoping to be surprised and wooed with a different perspective, and Brian did not disappoint: you have to “fix” the text, she said, by adding punctuation—but I would never be so bold as to use colons! A controversial stance, perhaps, but a persuasive one. (To be completely honest, I haven‘’t stopped thinking about colons since this talk.)

Perhaps one of the most “delicious” questions of translation came to the forefront during the post-talk Q&A: To what extent is this manuscript an “original” text if it has already been through processes of transcription and translation? Is there ever one singular, “original” text? To what extent does the “originality” of this manuscript change once it is translated into modern English? How do you determine what is “faithful” or “meaningful” in a translation of a text whose “originality” is in question? What to do with a third language, such as Nahuatl, which is not the “original” language but could be considered the “original” culture? (We really could go on with these sorts of questions.)

Though I might have rolled my eyes at yet another convoluted prodding at the idea of “faithfulness” in translation, I was impressed with the nuance with which Brian responded regarding the evolution of a text's significance. While the translation might not necessarily be a “true” representation of the ancient history Ixtlilxochitl wanted to present, it is indeed a translation that is true to the meaning of the text as a whole. At the center of this historiographical project, she said, is the process of translation bringing new meaning to the text. And of course, why translate something if we are not breathing fresh life into it?

Brian was thoughtful and insightful in engaging these questions—exhilarating questions not just for language fanatics like myself, but for anyone interested in the transfer between languages, histories, and contexts. Among the notes I haphazardly scrawled in my notebook, the one I most feverishly wrote, and have continued to go back to since, reads: “Questions that continue to haunt us and amuse us.” A seemingly simple notion, perhaps, but on point. It is precisely this dazzling dynamic that seems to keep us pondering so rigorously: how to go between language systems that, as Brian noted, are not compatible or commensurate. ”You get used to that process of negotiation,” she said. And indeed, even in that bright hour in Phillips Hall, we all seemed to grow a little fonder of the sticky process of translation.