Ancient Document’s Translation Clarifies Picture of New World

by Anne Reynolds

Ancient Document’s Translation Clarifies Picture of New World

Mason professor Garry Sparks’ study of religion at the intersection of history, culture, and language is unraveling the secrets of an ancient document, the Theologia Indorum.

His team’s work on the text, translating it from the Mayan language of K’iche’ to English and Spanish, will shed light on how the first Spanish missionaries shared their faith in the New World in the 1500s. The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Spanish explorers who spread through the West Indies and the mainland of the Americas were accompanied by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries equipped with sermons, catechisms, and songbooks. They translated their lessons to the languages of the people they encountered.

But the Theologia Indorum, written in the 1550s by Dominican friar Domingo de Vico, goes beyond a simple translated catechism. It was initially composed in K’iche’, an indigenous language still spoken by more than a million Guatemalans, then translated only into other related Mayan languages, said Sparks, who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Vico’s text “incorporated aspects and elements of Mayan religious beliefs and practices in his effort to translate concepts of Christianity to the Maya,” Sparks says. The name translates to “either the ‘Theology of the Indians’ or ‘Theology for the Indians.’ I’ve argued that both are correct, as Domingo de Vico seems to have written his Christian theology specifically for the Highland Maya but also as a result of drawing from and affirming features in Maya culture and religious worldview.”

The most significant finding of the Theologia Indorum is how it relates to contemporaneous writings by the Maya, Sparks says. “We’re fortunate because K’iche’ elites learned the writing system developed by and taught to them by Catholic missionaries and soon began to write their own books for their own purposes within only a decade or so," he says. “So, not only is the first Christian theology written in the Americas written in K’iche’ Maya but so are some of the first post-contact indigenous texts.”

Reading those texts and comparing their content to ancient images and hieroglyphic texts that predate Mayan contact with the Spanish, researchers can discern the impact of that encounter. Reading the Theologia Indorum in the context of Mayan writings indicates not only how Christianity was transmitted to the native population, but how they received it.

“It’s the first time we can actually look at the contemporaneous paper trail and recreate an interreligious dialogue between missionaries and indigenous people,” he says.

Sparks and a team of researchers received a National Endowment of the Humanities grant to prepare a critical edition and English translation of the first volume of the Theologia Indorum.

The project’s initial goal was to transcribe the first volume. Working remotely, with yearly weeklong, face-to-face meetings every March, the team has been able to make a complete transcription of both Volumes I and II. Their next step will be to produce an English and Spanish translation, both in terms of a literal translation of the document, “and then a much more fluid, idiomatic English translation that will be much more accessible,” Sparks says.

With help from Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the team will develop a website that will make the Theologia Indorum digitally available. The site will include full-color, high-resolution scanned images of its K’iche’ manuscript of Volume I along with the scholarly transcription and translation.

“For the first time since the 16th century, someone can read Volumes I and II and get the entire architecture of the argument,” says Sparks. “The whole idea is to really just get it out there so a whole host of other scholars across the disciplines can begin playing with it.”