From Untranslatable to Illegible

From Untranslatable to Illegible: A Social History of the Huarochirí Manuscript

by Laura León Llerena

Scholars have emphasized the role of literacy as a colonial tool. But Indigenous societies of the Americas were characterized by multimedia and multilingual dynamics long before European contact.

Laura León Llerena on her book Reading the Illegible. Indigenous Writing and the Limits of Colonial Hegemony in the Andes (University of Arizona Press, 2023).

What happens when Indigenous peoples of the Andes appropriate European letters as a means to tell their own stories in their own language in ways that may look like a “book” but defy the notions of writing of European conquistadores?

Described as a “small regional bible” of ancient peoples of the Andes, the anonymous text  known as the Huarochirí manuscript is considered just as important as the Popol Vuh, the famous sacred book of the Maya (Arguedas and Duviols 1966: 9). The Andean manuscript was written in Quechua  sometime between 1598 and 1608 and assembles narratives about divine and semi-divine beings in the Andes and their interactions with landscape, nature and humans, some of them told with a distinctly naughty humour. The stories, organized in 31 numbered chapters and two unnumbered annexes, cover a non-linear chronology that goes from an undated but remote past to the early modern present of its unnamed narrators. Most chapters touch on the complex nature of divinity and the sacred, and the beliefs and rituals that cemented and renewed obligations between deities and their followers, which crucially became the basis for the social and political lives of the diverse peoples that inhabited the Andean region of Huarochirí. 

The manuscript was created almost seven decades after Spaniards first set foot in territories that were once part of the Inca Empire. Spanish colonization went beyond the process of material reorganization of Indigenous society, with religious conversion of Andeans a central concern and a goal for Spanish monarchy and Catholic church officials. Indeed, the HM’s narrative voice identifies on a few occasions as “We Christians”. At that point in time, Christianized Andeans would have been expected to repudiate the kind of non-Christian beliefs and practices that are at the centre of the manuscript. However, the HM’s stories do not have a tone of denunciation, rather they present a dignified portrayal of non-Christian deities and their human followers, volunteering reflections about the hardship and contradictions of forced religious and cultural conversion. 

Both dimensions of conversion were inextricably linked to language, and this explains to an extent why a text that deals with these issues is challenging to translate. The HM’s language tells its own story about the colonial transformations that were taking place. Most of the manuscript was written in Quechua, with the incorporation of some Spanish terms and traces of other local Indigenous languages, some of them since extinct. From pre-Hispanic times up to this day, Quechua has been one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in the Andean region, with several different dialects that can be classified into two major linguistic groups. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was the language of the Inca Empire. Quechua seems to have been used for oral communication, although there are ongoing debates as to the interface between language and media (non-alphabetic modes of inscription) used by Andeans in pre-Hispanic times (Harrison 1989, Mannheim 1991, Torero 2005).   

From very early on in the colonial period, one of the varieties of Quechua was appropriated and transformed into a tool to preach and convert Andeans to Christianity. Identified as “lengua general” (general language), this variety would become one of the languages in which pastoral materials such as catechisms, sermons, and guides for confession were written and even printed in the Andes. Vocabularies and grammars of Quechua were also produced to help missionaries learn the language of their Indigenous parishioners, who were mostly expected to learn Christian doctrine in a passive way. Between 1584 and 1649 more than a dozen such texts were printed in Lima, the capital of the viceroyalty of Peru. In the same period, similar texts in Quechua were also printed in Rome, Naples, Seville and Valencia and imported to Peru. Quechua became a written and print language for evangelization purposes, following very specific translation guidelines that sought to avoid dangerous equivalences between Christian and Indigenous concepts of the sacred and religious practices (Durston 2007, Estenssoro 2003). Andeans had no active role in the transformation of Quechua into a written language for evangelization. The social role of Quechua thus bifurcated: the Quechua used by Andeans in their everyday lives coexisted with a modified Quechua designed for colonial evangelization. Those two paths did not necessarily intertwine.

Title of HM’s chapter 3 in Quechua with what looks like the later addition of a title in Spanish on top. A marginal note to the lower right side written in Spanish reads: “This is a mountain midway of huanri and surco.” BNE, MS 3169 fol. 66r. Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España.

The HM is the only known case of Andeans taking to writing in Quechua to produce a book-length text in early colonial Peru. Though filled with stories about the divine and the sacred and commentaries about religious conversion, this fifty-folio text is by no means a text for Christian evangelization. Neither the purpose behind the creation of this anonymous Quechua manuscript nor the intended reader are made explicit. It is clear, however, that that the authors cared about how the text was going to be read; the folios are organized into numbered chapters and most of them bear a title in Quechua sometimes followed by a translation to Spanish. There are also internal references to information mentioned in previous or following chapters. The last chapter even closes with the word in Spanish “fin” (the end). 

And yet, modern translators have struggled with the text. The divergences between the translations of the HM into various European languages, German (Trimborn 1939, 1967), Latin (Galante 1942), Spanish (Arguedas 1966; Urioste 1983; Taylor 1987, 2008), French (Taylor 1980), Polish (Szeminski 1985), Dutch (Adelaar 1988) and English (Salomon y Urioste 1991) confirm Salomon’s assessment that the manuscript is basically “untranslatable in all the usual senses”. To a large extent, this has to do with centuries of colonization of Indigenous languages and Andean culture. Colonial-era vocabularies and grammars of Quechua written for missionaries can be of help to translate sermons, catechisms and other pastoral texts sponsored by the Church. But they are not very helpful when it comes to understanding Quechua as used by Andeans outside the frame of evangelization. 

Still, language and the colonial bifurcation of its social role do not fully account for the challenges that the HM poses to its readers past and present. There is also an underlying history of colonial coexistence of native and non-native media and the eventual marginalization of the latter. Alphabetic writing, the non-native mode of inscription used to create the HM, was introduced to the Americas during the colonial era. As a tool of communication, it became central in the material and symbolic colonization of Indigenous societies. But it is important to remember that it was not the only extant medium of communication. Throughout the Andean region a system of knotted cords known as quipu or khipu had been in use for hundreds of years before Europeans set foot there. Colonial era descriptions of quipu as well as modern day archaeological and ethnographic studies strongly suggest that quantitative information such as tribute accounting and narrative information such as histories about Inca-era battles were inscribed in the cords (Brokaw 2010, Urton 2017). Quipu were also in use in Huarochirí at the time when the manuscript was being written down. Why would the anonymous creators of the HM turn to alphabetic writing to inscribe stories about Huarochirí communities and their non-Christian deities for posterity?

Andean knotted cord or quipu, made of cotton, c. 1400–1532.
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Eugene Schaefer.

A fortuitous element of the HM can provide some answers: the manuscript contains the annotations left by possibly its only contemporary non-Indigenous reader, Father Francisco de Ávila. Ávila read the manuscript carefully and wrote marginal notes in Spanish calling attention to specific localities mentioned in the stories, or remarking that more information was needed about objects, rituals and the non-Christian cosmogony of the Huarochirí people. As a secular priest he was responsible for the evangelization of Indigenous communities of Huarochirí. He was also busy denouncing non-Christian beliefs and destroying Andean ritual objects in what was then known as extirpation of idolatries. His annotations suggest that he read the HM partly for the information he needed to locate Indigenous sacred objects that he would then confiscate and destroy. In fact, he achieved renown as an extirpator. 

Ávila was born in Peru of a mixed-race background. He was fluent in Spanish as well as in Quechua, and authored a two-volume bilingual book of sermons. And yet, he could not quite understand the HM, and complained that its content was “notable nonsense”. His marginal notes to the Quechua manuscript and his translation to Spanish of the first seven chapters of it suggest that his struggle as a reader was not a linguistic one. Instead, I argue that the HM was illegible for Father Ávila because he struggled with divergent coeval ideas of what Indigenous writing could be used for in colonial society and with how the legitimacy of coexisting media such as alphabetic writing and quipu was being reframed in the colonial space.

Scholars have emphasized the role of literacy as a colonial tool. But Indigenous societies of the Americas were characterized by multimedia and multilingual dynamics long before European contact. By turning to the notion of Legibility we may be able to understand how Indigenous peoples made sense of and produced meaning with new media that were introduced in the Americas in the process of European colonization. I understand Legibility to encompass the ability to read a particular technique of inscription (Latin script; knots) and the understanding of a set of cultural and social expectations necessary to unlock the meaning of what was inscribed. Father Ávila was certainly familiar with alphabetic writing and Quechua language, but his notes and translation suggest that he was unaware of what writing in Quechua meant for his Indigenous parishioners. While the priest was condemning Indigenous culture and destroying its material concretizations, the anonymous authors of the HM were creating with paper, ink, and alphabetic writing a space of material legitimacy for the kind of knowledge that was being marginalised, prohibited, and uprooted.

Selected bibliography

Adelaar, Willem. Het Boek Van Huarochirí : Mythen En Riten Van Het Oude Peru Zoals Opgetekend in De Zestiende Eeuw Voor Francisco De Avila Bestrijder Van Afgoderij. Meulenhoff, 1988.

Arguedas, Jose Maria, and Pierre Duviols. Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí. Narración quechua recogida por Francisco de Ávila. Lima: Museo Nacional de Historia; Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1966.

Brokaw, Galen. A History of the Khipu. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Durston, Alan. Pastoral Quechua: The History of Christian Translation in Colonial Peru, 1550–1650. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Estenssoro Fuchs, Juan Carlos. Del paganismo a la santidad: la incorporación de los indios del Perú al catolicismo, 1532–1750. Translated by Gabriela Ramos. Travaux de l’Institut Français d’Études Andines. Lima: IFEA Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú; Instituto Riva-Agüero, 2003.

Galante, Hipólito. Francisci De Avila De Priscorum Huaruchiriensium Origine Et Institutis Ad Fidem Mspti N° 3169 Bibliothecae Nationalis Matritensis. Madrid: Instituto Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo de Historia Hispano-Americana, 1942.

Harrison, Regina. Signs, Songs and Memory in the Andes. Translating Quechua Language and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Mannheim, Bruce. The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Salomon, Frank, and L. Urioste George, eds. The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Szemiński, Jan. Bogowie I Ludzie Z Huarochirí. Kraków: Wydaw. 1985.

Taylor, Gerald. Rites et traditions de Huarochirí Manuscrit quechua du début du 17e siècle. Paris: Éd. L’Harmattan, 1980.

Taylor, Gerald. Ritos y tradiciones de Huarochirí. Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos; Instituto de Estudios Peruanos; Fondo Editorial Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2008.

Torero, Alfredo. Idiomas de los Andes. Lingüística e historia. Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos; Editorial Horizonte, 2005.

Trimborn, Hermann. Dämonen und Zauber im Inkareich. Leipzig: K.F. Koehler, 1939.

Urioste, Jorge. Hijos de Pariya Qaqa : La tradición oral de Waru Chiri. Syracuse (New York): Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, 1983.

Urton, Gary. Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Laura León Llerena is associate professor at Durham University (UK). Her research focuses on the circulation of knowledge produced by and about Indigenous peoples of Spanish America from the 16th to the 18th centuries. She has published on translation and colonization of Indigenous languages, the coexistence of Indigenous and European media, and on how material culture and notions of the sacred redefined social and cultural interactions in colonial contexts. Her research has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Volkswagen Stiftung, and John Carter Brown Library.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 2, 2023

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