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Cannibal Translation

True History: A Rendering

Bernal Díaz del Castillo

Translated from the Spanish by Chloe Garcia Roberts

The Historia verdadera de la conquista de la nueva españa (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain), written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who served as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico under Hernan Cortés, chronicles the army’s journey to the city on a lake at the heart of the Aztec empire, and the destruction that followed. Dubbed the first great American novel, it is part of the bedrock of Mexican consciousness, a supra text along the lines of the Bible or the Odyssey.

The Historia verdadera was first published in 1632, in a version that was heavily edited to favor Spanish interests. The true True History was only published in 1904, after the original manuscript, which had been thought lost, was discovered in Guatemala, where Díaz had lived out the rest of his life after his time in Mexico.

We had a copy of the Historia verdadera in my house growing up, and I remember taking it down a few times, reading it fitfully, never consecutively or completely, but always circling that glimpse of a city that underlaid the city that I knew. A few years ago, I happened to hear a story at a family wedding of how my great-grandfather Genaro García, a historian, bibliophile, and director of what is now the Museo Nacional de Antropología, traveled to Guatemala, obtained a copy of the original manuscript, and republished it. This edition, known as the Guatemala manuscript, has become the standard and it outlines all the multitudinous ways the earlier version had been changed, edited, and cut.

At first, I returned to the text simply out of curiosity, to see what I could determine about my great-grandfather’s personal connection to it. But then, drawn back to that first description of Mexico City, I found myself working alongside him, comparing editions, picking sentences apart, considering the meaning behind each word. Translation is the best mode of understanding for me, and I began to translate certain fragments of the text so as to better see them. Almost immediately, I regretted the narrowing that had to occur for these words to arrive in English. I wanted to reveal more. So, armed with Haroldo De Campos's philosophy of cannibal translation and its endorsement and celebration of textual reconfiguration and reincarnation, I invited my poet self to join in the work.

—Chloe Garcia Roberts 


Don’t marvel that I describe it this way here,
because there is so much to think about.
I don’t know how to put it into words,
how to make you see the things we saw:
the never-heard,
the never-seen,
the never-dreamed.

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing like this,
because I don’t know how to tell you about it.
There is too much to think over,
all the things that we saw. 
Things that before that instant we had never heard,
never glimpsed,
never even imagined.

The thing is not to marvel at what I write or the way I write,
because I have so much in my head
and have no plan for how I will convey
what was seen that had never been seen,
nor listened to,
nor even realized,
until that moment. 

Don’t be amazed at the way I am writing,
because you need to think carefully
about what I don’t know how to tell you.
You need to see what was never perceived,
never witnessed,
never even substantiated,
the way that we saw.

Don’t be surprised by the way I am writing.
I have to think so carefully [about it],
I don’t know how I will construe it [a way]
to see things never listened for,
or looked for,
or even conceived of,
the way we did. 

Don’t wonder at the way I am describing this,
because you need to focus on what I don’t know,
how I [will] translate the things we witnessed,
unheard of,
and even,


It rained and flashed and thundered that afternoon until the middle of the night, with so much more water than ever before. And once it was known Cuauhtémoc had been overcome, we soldiers were left as deaf as if we had been men standing within a bell tower where many bells were ringing in that very instant when what had been ringing ceased to ring, when what had been singing ceased to sing.

And this I say specifically because for the entirety of the ninety-three days we were in that city, night and day the Mexican captains were yelling and shouting, warning the squadrons and warriors who were set to battle on the arteries; others calling to those in canoes who were to fight with the brigantines and with those of us on the bridges; others hammering, sinking in sharpened palisades and opening and deepening the waterways and bridges and making stone fortifications; others preparing lances and arrows; and the women rounding stones to hurl with slings.

And so from the adoratories and towers to their idols those goddamned drums and horns those painful tall drums never ceased to sound. And so by night and by day, we were held in this great sound, so we didn’t hear one another, so that one could not hear the others, and after we made Cuauhtémoc a prisoner the screams ceased and all noise.

This is why I said before it was as if we had been within a bell tower. This is why I said before what had been ringing ceased to ring, what had been singing ceased to sing.


And so while Cortés was in Coyoacán and staying in these palaces with whitewashed walls that could be written upon with charcoal or some sort of ink, he would wake every morning to read the writing on the wall.

There were many slurs, some in prose and some in verse, some malicious, in the way of farce.

There was writing that said that the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars and the sea and the land have their paths, and if at any time they deviate from the inclination for which they were created, if they stray beyond its delineations, they will still return to their original state. They will still return to their original being.

There was writing that said that this is the way it is with the ambition and command of Cortés, that it will come to pass that he will become again who he always was.

There was writing that said it had to happen, this return. A return to his primary nature. A return to his first incarnation. A return to himself, who he first was

Chloe Garcia Roberts is the author of a book of poetry, The Reveal (Noemi), and the translator of several books from the Spanish and Chinese, including Li Shangyin's Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (New Directions). She works as the deputy editor of the Harvard Review and lives outside Boston.


About the author

Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496–1584) served as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico under Hernán Cortés. In his later years he served as governor in Guatemala, where he wrote his memoir, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España.

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