Where shall we go? (¿Can nelpa tonyazque?) by Nezahualcoyotl

This entry is part 15 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Where shall we go
where death does not exist?
But should I live weeping because of this?
May your heart find its way:
here no one will live forever.
Even the princes die,
people are reduced to ashes.
May your heart find its way:
here no one will live forever.
(translated by Miguel Léon-Portilla with Grace Lobanov)

¿Can nelpa tonyazque
canon aya micohua?
¿Ica nichoca?
Moyoliol xi melacuahuacan:
ayac nican nemiz.
Tel ca tepilhuan omicoaco,
Moyoliol xi melacuahuacan:
ayac nican nemiz.

Thanks to Colombian student filmmaker Felipe Meneses for this terrific, bilingual poetry film that allows us to hear the poem in the original Classical Nahautl while reading the Spanish translation. Fortunately I have an English translation to hand from the essential anthology Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, by Miguel Léon-Portilla, the former director of the Institute of Historical Research of the National University of Mexico and an expert on pre-Columbian philosophy and literature.

Mexican 100-peso note featuring Nezahualcoyotl

Nezahaulcoyotl of Texcoco (1402-1472) was the epitome of the philosopher-king, and the Mexican 100-peso note includes not only his supposed likeness, but also, in tiny type, a translation of four lines of poetry attributed to him:

Amo el canto del zenzontle
Pájaro de cuatrocientas voces,
Amo el color del jade
Y el enervante perfume de las flores,
Pero más amo a mi hermano, el hombre.

I love the song of the mockingbird,
Bird of four hundred voices,
I love the color of the jadestone
And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man.

Thus the Wikipedia. Spanish translations of Nezahaulcoyotl’s poetry are reprinted in a number of places on the web, but for versions in English, as well as a good biography, get the Léon-Portilla book. There are also some translations by John Curl at his website and in this useful, if somewhat crudely produced, bilingual video:

For further reading of Nahautl literature, I highly recommend A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs, edited by T.J. Knab and translated by Thelma D. Sullivan. Sullivan, an anthropologist, was “the finest translator of Nahuatl in this [20th] century,” according to Knab—an opinion shared by Dennis Tedlock, an anthropologist specializing in poetics who has authored the most authoritative English translation of the Popul Vuh to date.