The Power of Words: Translation, Mistranslation and Retranslation in the Creation of Christian Quechua Discourse in Colonial Peru

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Languages Cultures and Religions


During the Spanish conquest (1532) and colonisation of Peru the Christianisation of the indigenous population was purportedly one of the main objectives of the Spanish Crown. From the beginning it was felt that indoctrination would be most efficient when using the most widespread native languages. As a consequence a large corpus of religious texts originated very soon after the conquest, most of them translations of prayers, confessionaries and other formulaic components of Christian doctrine. These were complemented by sermons, written in Spanish especially for the new parishioners and translated into the native languages. The authors of these texts were Spanish priests who used 'mestizo' or indigenous translators who had received a formal education and learned how to write the native languages, for which the missionaries developed alphabets and which they described grammatically.
Some members of the native population of Peru who had received this training in writing and reading, wrote their own works, from their particular cultural and personal point of view, on the past and colonial present of Peru. They used and reworked the form and content of the recently introduced Christian literature or drew on their own historiographic and artistic heritage, thereby contributing to the development of a particular colonial native language discourse and cultural hybridity.
From a cross-disciplinary and methodologically challenging angle (combining linguistics, ethnohistory and religious studies) this study will examine the creation of early colonial Andean religious discourse (16th/17th centuries) in the Quechua language. A linguistic analysis of Christian religious terminology will be accompanied by the examination of texts in terms of grammatical and stylistic patterns so as to discover how concepts were linguistically and culturally translated and which changes they went through in this process. In order to understand the meaning priests and indigenous authors wanted to convey it is important to look also into their respective cultural, especially religious heritage, i.e. Andean beliefs and practices as well as Spanish folk-traditions and theological concepts.
An example is the term 'supay', which in Quechua referred to beings related to the ancestors and a shadow-world. The Spaniards used the word to translate their own word 'devil', thus intending to give the Quechua word purely negative connotations. This is problematic in a language that appears not to have had absolute terms for 'good' and 'evil' and a culture whose supernatural beings, the 'wakas', were ambivalent in terms of their behaviour towards humankind. Following the usage of the term 'supay' in Christian texts over a time span of ca. twenty years we can see how meanings of this key term evolved from a descriptive 'mana alli supay', 'not-good (i.e. bad) supay' to 'supay', with the now Christianised meaning of 'devil'. In an anonymous collection of Quechua myths of the time there is evidence how the word 'waka', designating a supernatural being and its various possible manifestations (e.g. in certain features of the landscape, as human being or transformed into a certain animal) was used in mythic narratives; but in a conversion narrative of the same text collection it was replaced by the word 'supay': here the being is portrayed as evil, apparently by a narrator who had adopted the Christian meaning for 'supay', i.e. 'devil'.
The present study will show that the usage of the native languages for Christianisation had complex consequences for both, the implementing Spaniards as well as the receiving indigenous population: both cultures were affected and the resulting changes laid the foundations for contemporary Andean Christianity.

Planned Impact

The project will have social and cultural impact for people in Peru and South America as well as those interested in Latin American culture in Europe. This will be evident in its contribution to a better understanding of post-colonial intercultural problems, which is highly significant in contemporary socio-cultural contexts.
The engagement on an academic level with the cultures of South America is an area which is becoming of greater interest to Britain; this is reflected to a certain extent in the increase in the teaching of Spanish in the UK. This study can contribute to increasing the awareness that South American culture does not only involve the Spanish language. In this sense, the study and its publication will contribute to my teaching in order to broaden students' concept of 'Latin American history and culture' which forms a central part of the curriculum at Stirling University. As a number of Education students take Spanish and Latin American Studies, their increasing awareness of Latin American culture and history will impact on what is taught in schools.
Beyond the academic community and wider social sectors in the Andes, I intend to engage (in the context of a broader international and comparative research project) with interested sectors of the Scottish public, with a view towards comparing Christianisation through the adoption of native languages, an approach also used in the Gaelic domain (and still present there). As far as potential interest in Scotland is concerned, it may be possible to discuss the topic, for example, with an interested public in the Outer Hebrides (see the activities of The Islands Book Trust, in form of a paper embedded in a workshop.
With respect to potential impact in the Andes, once the book is published, there will be opportunities to talk about my hypotheses and results and discuss them with academics and members of the community in Peru (see, e.g.,, for a previous event) as well as local TV and radio stations).
There is also interest in my work beyond the Andes: my contact with Brazilian scholarship goes back a number of years and I have recently been invited (for a second time) to present my ideas to postgraduate students and colleagues in Brazil (supported by a Brazilian institution and a Carnegie grant).
Beyond these areas of concrete impact, the study of religion in its cultural context and the role of politics, language policies and linguistics in a globalised world with increasing social and transcultural mobility contributes directly to the bilateral relations of nations as well as individuals and groups of different ethnic and religious origins who live together.
A website will present my own projects as well as others from within Languages, Cultures and Religions, under the heading of 'Translating Christianities', and thereby enhance diffusion and offer a forum for discussions.


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Description In the colonial era of Latin America there were indigenous authors who combined their own cultural concepts and Western ideas in the creation of complex narratives. These can be seen as subversion in order to make the narrative appear to follow Christian tenets, but it actually keeps the underlying indigenous values alive. This has been shown by analysing Quechua narratives.
Exploitation Route Scholars who work on other cultural areas who experienced a similar colonial situation can use these outcomes to test and discuss my findings in a wider framework.
Sectors Education,Other