Aesop’s Fables in Nahuatl

While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.

The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).

But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?


Well, not a lot, but that need not concern us overmuch here.

The fact is that Ostler chose to expand a little on the subject of the evangelising efforts of the Spanish in the New World; and these efforts included learning the indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl in Mexico, and then setting up schools to give a classical education to the natives. Hence a translation of Aesop into Nahuatl from the Latin.

The Florentine Codex – a bilingual Spanish-Nahuatl book on all things Mexican from the 16th century by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sagahún (Photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, I thought you might enjoy this rather original rendering of The Lion and the Frog:

A jaguar once heard a frog, screaming and croaking a great deal. The jaguar was frightened by it. He thought it was a large four-footed animal that was screaming so loud.

To quieten his heart, he looked around him in all directions. He prepared himself to encounter the one who croaked in such manner.

But when the frog saw him at the waterside, he quickly fled.

Arriving at the water’s edge, the jaguar was very cross and ashamed for he thought nothing of the one by whom he had been so frightened. He squashed him and killed him.

And – just as a reminder – the much terser original:

A lion once heard a frog croaking; he turned towards the noise, thinking it was some great beast; when he saw the frog by the pond, he went up and squashed it.

It is imprudent to be frightened by what cannot be seen.

The Nahuatl translation has been made in the 16th century – and given its rather original style, I suspect the anonymous translator wasn’t a Franciscan monk! More likely one of his students, a native Nahuatl speaker. His collection of the fables in Nahuatl goes by the title of In sasanilli in Esopo and it appears to be a firm favourite with authors writing on the subject of the meeting of European and Native American cultures (who perhaps quote it with slightly more justification than Ostler did it in a history of Latin).

You might also like:Book 12 of the Florentine Codex (aka The General History of the Things of New Spain) - a scanned copy on World Digital Library. Book 12 describes the conquest of Mexico. It's worth a look for the illustrations alone.
⇒ Aesop's Fables on Project Gutenberg
⇒ The Burning Mountain of Huexotzinco about how Diego de Ordaz climbed the erupting Popocatepetl and became the first European ever to set eyes on Tenochtitlán
⇒ When with Eagle Eyes He Star'ed at the Pacific: how Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean
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