Much of the information that anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and linguists must have about central Mexico in preconquest and early postconquest times is embedded in texts which are extremely inaccessible, not only because as rare and exotic items they have found their way into museums scattered all over the world, but because, put on paper during a transitional epoch in Mesoamerican writing traditions, they generally contain both glyphic-pictorial material and passages of Nahuatl in Roman characters. Few are the scholars expert in either glyphs or older Nahuatl, much less in both; the need is hence great for reliable critical editions of the principal documents. The large and beautiful book under review is a major step in supplying that need, and (except for its price) it can stand as a model for editions of this whole class of texts.
The document, the so-called “Historia tolteca-chichimeca,” was written around 1550-1560 in the town of Cuauhtinchan, east of Puebla. It details the socio-political antecedents of Cuauhtinchan, starting with the breakup of old Tula, followed by migrations of some of the Toltecs to Cholula and their spread from there to surrounding areas, of which Cuauhtinchan was one. The first portion of the text, dealing with the Toltecs in general, is strongly mythical-legendary; the second part consists of annals of the Cuauhtinchan people, bringing them year-by-year, ruler-by-ruler, past their relations with Cholula to the splintering of their domain under the Aztecs and on to the first years of the Spanish conquest. The Nahuatl text carries the main burden of the narration, but numerous glyphs, pictures, and maps are integrated into the account. It appears that the sixteenth-century document coming down to us rests on earlier versions in which only the glyphic portion was written and the rest was oral. While the contents of the document bear on innumerable topics, they especially illustrate the extreme importance of the sub-imperial level and microethnicity just at the time when scholars are turning to serious regional investigation of late preconquest central Mexico.
The conception of the edition is to give the reader a complete kit to facilitate his comprehension, make checking for himself possible, and to equip him to pursue any number of further avenues on his own. The kit consists of color facsimile; transcription; translation; notes on translation problems, key terms and points of substance; comparisons with earlier editions and related documents; schematized preliminary interpretations of the pictorial materials; tables synthesizing hard-to-grasp genealogies; maps of migration routes; and complete analytical indexes of proper names and special terms. If the conception is that of the late Kirchhoff, we appear to owe a good deal of its execution to Reyes, and the translation is clearly his, profiting much from his explorations in colonial Nahuatl sources and his first-hand knowledge of the modern Nahuatl spoken in the region. The translation, which deserves the reader’s full confidence, is such a vast improvement on previous editions that the references to the latter’s hopelessly mistaken variant renderings have some appearance of malice. Only the few short songs or poems still defy the attempt to establish their surface meaning. Beyond certain minor details, no more accurate interpretation can be attained until quite a few additional similar texts have been given the same treatment.
It would, however, be possible to do a different kind of translation, as the editors themselves at one point suggest. The Spanish text here, sticking to literalness, loaded down with notes and terms left in Nahuatl, is not easy to read. Let us hope that this edition will be followed in the near future by a much slighter and cheaper one, without the Nahuatl, containing a flowing, readable Spanish version and an introduction which would synthesize the chaotic wealth of knowledge scattered in the notes and charts.
Returning to this edition as a model for its genre, I would suggest only one or two slightly different procedures. It is appropriate to leave place names and the like in the original language as Reyes does; yet almost all these have quite transparent meanings which should be translated parenthetically at least on first appearance, especially since they often bear on matters of substance. On page 160, for example, only the reader conversant with Nahuatl can tell that the names of places in one direction contain the word “white” and those in the other the word “red.” And as to the transcription, it seems to me that in a publication such as this one, which despite its coffee-table beauty is primarily for specialists, it would be best to retain the characteristic original orthography, so meaningful to the expert, rather than partially modernizing it.