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Ancient Text Yields New Understanding

By Anne Reynolds on November 26, 2018

For much of his career, George Mason University religious studies professor Garry Sparks has been piecing together the scattered remnants of a 16th-century text—the Theologia Indorum. His team’s translation of that text 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 Theologia Indorum is identified as the first original Christian theology written in the Americas, and it had never been translated into any non-Mayan language. Originally written in two volumes, the work in its entirety is also the longest single text written in a Native American language—close to 900 pages.

Assistant Professor Garry Sparks meets with colleagues from around the world in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress. From left, Frauke Sachse, Sparks, Saqijix Candelaria López Ixcoy, and Sergio Romero. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Sparks, who specializes in the history of religions and Christian theology, is the principal investigator for the project. In 2016, he and his research team received a National Endowment of the Humanities grant to prepare a critical edition with English and Spanish translations of the first volume of the Theologia Indorum.

Sparks is one of four scholars on the project—all fluent in K’iche’ and Spanish, and representing a variety of academic fields and universities. Other team members include Frauke Sachse, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Bonn in Germany; Sergio Romero, a Guatemalan socio-linguist at the University of Texas at Austin; and Saqijix Candelaria López Ixcoy, a linguist at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City and a native K’iche’ speaker. All have done extensive fieldwork in Guatemala, as well as archival research on colonial-era Maya documents.

“A lot of the initial research was just tracking down how many surviving copies we have, and none of them are complete, so I’ve had to cobble them together,” says Sparks, who notes he did much of this work while working on his dissertation at the University of Chicago.

There are surviving copies in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, a few at Princeton University, a couple at Harvard University, and one each at the Newberry Library in Chicago and at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Sparks’s research included determining how extensive each surviving manuscript was, which language it was in, when it was written, and where it came from.

The project’s initial goal was to transcribe the first volume of the Theologia Indorum. Working remotely, with an annual, weeklong, face-to-face meeting every March, the team has actually been able to make a complete transcription of both Volumes I and II, and the transcription work has gone much more quickly than they had predicted would be possible.

Their next step is 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,” explains Sparks. Though the emphasis will be on the English translation, the team hopes to make the document accessible to Spanish-speaking researchers as well.

The Theologia Indorum goes beyond a simple imported and translated catechism. Written in the 1550s by Dominican friar Domingo de Vico, the text was initially composed in K’iche’, an indigenous language still spoken by more than one million Guatemalans today. The distinction is that “unlike most Christian texts written in Native American languages, the Theologia Indorum was not a translation of a Western European Christian document,” says Sparks, who teaches in Mason’s Religious Studies Department. “Instead, [the text] was originally composed in a native language and then translated only into other related Mayan languages.”

Equally important is that Vico’s text “incorporated aspects and elements of Maya religious beliefs and practices in his effort to translate concepts of Christianity to the Maya,” Sparks says. The name of the document, in fact, translates “to mean 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.”

Vico wrote the Theologia Indorum in two separate volumes, with Volume I completed in 1553 and Volume II completed in 1554. Until the 1970s, understanding of the text was limited, and its manuscript copies were often cataloged as a collection of sermons or catechisms, with the few surviving copies dispersed in repositories all over the world.

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

“For the first time since the 16th century, someone will be able to 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.”

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