onsdag den 11. juni 2014

Coming Soon to a Church Near You: The Catholic Mass in Nahuatl

Report from the 7th Pastoral Workshop on Nahuatl Language and Culture

From Monday the 9th to Thursday the 12th of June 2014, the 7th Pastoral Workshop on Nahuatl Language and Culture took place in Tehuipango, in the Sierra de Zongolica in Central Veracruz. The workshop was organized and presided over by Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas. I was fortunate enough to be invited and be present during two days of the workshop, and to be able to interview the Bishop and talk to several of the participants.

The decorated entrance to the church
of Tehuipango during the workshop
This objective of this series of workshops which has been going on since 2012 is to create an official, translation approved by Rome of the catholic mass into Nahuatl, and as a secondary objective create a unified liturgical language to be used in the many dioceses with Nahuatl speakers. The initiative was started under Pope Benedict, but according to Bishop Arizmendi, Pope Francis has already expressed his interest in the project and his willingness to let translation work take place in the countries in which the linguistic expertise is found instead of in Rome.

The translation is a collective work of a group of Nahuatl speaking priests representing different dialect areas. Most of the priests are native speakers, although some have acquired the language as a second language when arriving in their parishes.  At the workshop they work conjointly on a a version that is meant to be acceptable to speakers in all regions requires many deep discussions of local usage, and semantics. Originally the aim was to have a couple of different versions, perhaps three, but at the first workshop in 2012 at Tepeyac, a consensus formed among the delegates that it should be possible to make a single authorized version in a new variety of Nahuatl that would be widely acceptable. The first workshop translated the Pater Noster and succeeded in creating a version that was satisfactory to the participants representing the different dialect areas at the meeting. This led to a decision of working towards creating a single version in a kind of Nahuatl that they describe as Unified Nahuatl. The Bishop described this consensus among the priests as a miracle performed by the virgin of Guadalupe.

To take into account dialectal variation the translation does include footnotes allowing for substitutions of certain terms in cases where meaning or pronunciation differs too much to reconcile all speakers into a single version.

Bishop Arizmendi several times underscored that the translation was not an academic or specialist work, but rather a work of service to the Nahuatl speaking communities, and they should be the final arbiters of the translation. The translation draft the participants were revising had already been used by the priests in their parishes and many of them brought comments from speakers about the intelligibility.

The orthography settled upon at the first meeting uses the letters k, s, h and hu – a kind of compromise orthography using elements of the two main contending orthographies. There are still some advocates of using w instead of hu among the participants.

It is likely the first time in several centuries that the Catholic Church has taken any official interest in the Nahuatl language, and the result will be the first official translation of the mass into Nahuatl ever.

Many interesting topics of Nahuatl grammar stirred discussion among the participating priests. Among the many discussions were questions such as:

  • Whether to use honorific forms when referring to and adressing God. Some variants, such as those of the Isthmus, do not have honorific forms, except for the -tzin suffix that for them expresses something closer to endearment than respect. In other varieties reverential forms cannot easily be omitted when adressing God, or any superior. 
  • Which imperative form to use in the supplications to god, with xi-, with xi- and honorifics, or with the optative particle ma. 
  • Whether to translate Aleluya into a Nahuatl expression for example yolpakilistli or leave it as is. Proponents of yolpakilistli noted that this expression has been used for Aleluya in several Nahuatl translations already, whereas others doubted that yolpakilistli had a sufficiently sacred and enthusiastic connotation, given that the same word may be used to refer to drunken happiness at a party, or just general contentedness.
  • Whether to use the verb motlalihtok or sehuihtok when referring to Jesus seated at the right hand of God. In some varieties tlalia means something closer to “put” and is considered a rude way of referring to God's son, whereas in others “mosehuia” means something similar to “relaxing” which also isnt deemed to describe the attitude of Christ at his fathers right hand.
  • How to translate the words prophet and king, angel – which easily end up having similar sounding or opaque translations in Nahuatl.
  • Whether the verb iknoitta can be used to translate the supplication to have “mercy on us”. Some find it to be selfcontradictory as even though iknoitta in many varieties now is understood too mean pity or compassion the root of iknoitta is iknotl, meaning orphan, and the meaning of the request “ma titechiknoitta” could be literally translated as “please see us as orphans” - some participants suggest that this may not the best way to request mercy from our heavenly father. 

It will be interesting to see when the work of the priests come to fruition and masses in Nahuatl will begin to be held all across Mexico. It will also be interesting to see the impact the existence of a Unified Nahuatl backed by Rome will have on the vernacular varities.

Tehuipango is located on a tall mountain ridge in the cold sierra of Zongolica
in the corner between the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Puebla.