Retranslating Nezahualcoyotl

Nezahualcoyotl, king of Tetzcohco (Texcoco), was one of the founders of the Triple Alliance of Anahuac (Aztec Empire). Perhaps one of the most brilliant minds of Mesoamerica, Nezahualcoyotl stood out as a statesman, engineer, philosopher, and, above all, poet.

Not for legal tender, heh.

The poet-king’s face appears on Mexico’s 100-peso bill, along with one of his poems in Spanish. We don’t have the original Nahuatl of that piece, but many have attempted to recreate what it might have been.

Close-up of the poem.

Here’s the poem in English, Spanish, and my own Classical Nahuatl rendition.

English (my translation):

I love the song of the mockingbird,
bird of four hundred voices;
I love the color of jade
and the drowsy perfume of flowers;
but more than these, I love 
my fellow human beings.

Spanish (from Mexico’s 100-peso bill):

Amo el canto del cenzontle,
pájaro de cuatrocientas voces;
amo el color del jade
y el enervante perfume de las flores,
pero más amo a mi hermano;
el hombre.

My Classical Nahuatl “re-translation” of this famous poem by Nezahualcoyotl:

nictlazohtla īcuīc in centzontlahtōleh. 
nictlazohtla ītlapallo in chālchihuitl 
īhuān tēcaxāhuani xōchitl īahhuiyaca 
zan oc cencah nictlazohtla 
nicnīuh in tlācatl.

A beautiful sentiment, wouldn’t you agree?

Now, if you look around, you’ll find other Nahuatl versions of this poem in which modern translators use “nehhuātl nictlazohtla” over and over. The only problem is that in Classical Nahuatl, the emphatic pronoun nehhuātl (I/me) was used sparingly, to add stress or clarity. That phrase would mean “As for ME? I love …”

We furthermore have quite a few poems ascribed to Nezahualcoyotl in which he seldom uses the first-person singular emphatic pronoun.

For example, here’s the first stanza of song XIX from the codex Romances de los señores de la Nueva España (Ballads of the Lords of New Spain), a piece ascribed to Nezahualcoyotl:

ō nēn nontlācat 
ō nēn nonquīzaco
totēcuiyō īchān
in tlālticpac* 
In vain was I born,
In vain did I come, emerging
From the House of Our Lord — 
On earth
I suffer.

You’ll notice that the poet never uses the emphatic “nehhuātl” in these lines, as the “ni-” or “non-” prefixes already indicate the first person singular.

So those other translations don’t quite feel idiomatic. They don’t read like 15th-century Anahuac speech, just to be clear.


*The paleographic (unaltered) original ending reads “ ichani — y tlalticpac/qui ninotolinia,” which I think may mean the last two words are “nitlālticpacquīz ninotolīniā” — “I was born on earth. I suffer.”