Three Mbya Guaraní Stories — Elisa Taber

The following are three metonymically translated stories.

They pertain to ethnographic statements compiled and translated into Spanish by the Paraguayan anthropologist Léon Cadogan. I translated them from a mixture of Spanish, Mbya Guaraní, and Jopará, colonized and reduced Guaraní, into English.

Metonymy is the substitution of a whole with a part. Different typefaces render multiple versions of the source differentiable and simultaneously legible in the target text. I will read the literary and literal translations, in addition to the footnotes.

Dictionary of Symbols

(A Word/A Word) = Substitute. Literal proceeds literary translation.
A Word = Addition. Literal precedes literary translation.
A Word = Un-translated Guaraní word.
A Word1 = Expounded meaning

Paradise/The First Earth)

Ñamandu1 conceives our future2 earthly dwelling with the creative wisdom contained in his divinity. Digs a scepter into the core. Drops a seed in each orifice. Wind pushes him to four sites. Stakes mark opposite ends of the equator–(West/where the Karaí live) and (East/where the Tupa live, the sun sets)–and meridian–(North-East3/where the prosperous wind originates)4 and (South/where the primitive time-space5 began). Four blue6, indestructible, and endless7 palm trees sprout from each orifice. They (root/knot) the earth to the sky.

(Snake/Y-amai), creator of bodies of water, is the first to soil our dwelling. Grasshopper penetrates the ground with its end. Knotted weeds sprout. It celebrates with a chirp.(Cicada/Yrypa) sings a lament. (Armadillo/Tatu) unsnarls the matted bush and tills the soil. The owl owns darkness. Our father owns dawn, the sun. The original snake, cicada, grasshopper, armadillo, and owl dwell in the outskirts of paradise. Their progeny are images of them.

Ñamandu muttered his children’s soul-names9 while ascending into paradise10. (Guardian of the flames/Karaí), (the fire/the origin of the sacred words that inspire me) inextinguishable. Listen for the crackling sound. (Guardian of the fog/Jakaira), release the visible and wet air through the crown of your head each Spring. (Guardian of the water/Tupa), supply all daily with the liquid that satiates thirst stored in your heart. That which alleviates needs disables the production of excess heat.

1 Self-created first man. Not a man or God.
2 Memory recited in present tense.
3 Historical sites of dwellings. Not exact cardinal points.
4 Wind is the origin of nomadic life. Ñamandu does not exist underground or in the sky but hovers above earth like a hummingbird.
5 The first settlement is the origin of the memory of place, time and space, history and geography.
6 Color of the open sky. Sacred tones are assigned to some flora and fauna.
7 Temporal and spatial extension of the tree.
8 Success and failure are expressed through song.
9 Name means imbuement with a divine soul and expression of an idea.
10 Speech is never direct. Speaker keeps back to listener or messenger mediates.

The Flood

Some inhabitants of the first earth attain indestructibility.11 They know how to reach their future home among the lower gods. Others lack understanding. They set out in the wrong direction and (transform/undergo metempsychosis).12 The female thief that turned into a deer and the nephew that married his paternal13 aunt remain on the first earth.14

They pray, sing, and dance. It does not lead them on the path to perfection. The floods arrive. They swim for two months. Pray and grow strong. The current carries them to an eternal palm tree. Each grasps a branch. Rest while they wait, wait to become immortal.15

11 Become indestructible or transform.
12 Formality of word choice evidences the complexity of the Guaraní language, not the intervention of the translator.
13 Specificity indicates that this is a case contemporary to and known by the story-teller.
14 Transgressors transform into an animal or alter kinship relations; e.g. nephew becomes husband.
15 The inhabitants of the second earth are morphed deviant characters, no reversal, that survive in their new skin.

(Reality/The Second Earth)

Ask, (The guardian of the flames/Karaí,) will you give us a new home?”16 He refuses to build something ephemeral. The images of men will fall into sin like the originals. Tell Ñamandu, “(I/he) will punish (you/us) before (you/we) betray (me/him).

Ask, (“The guardian of the fog/Jakaira) will you give us a new home?”17 He accepts the presage of tragedy his land contains. Humanity will be tested there. Envelops the real beings that traverse the roads of imperfection in the enlivening fog and sacred flames of his lit pipe. Illuminates the Valleys between forests with his thunder-less lightning.18

Ñamandu instructs his son (./:) “Call each by their soul-names, labor to sustain (your new home/reality), and prosper by engendering many. Pa-pa Mirí makes the base of stone. Floods dissolve the paper base of the first. This one will be tested by fire. The earth extends before his sight. He populates it with images of the original inhabitants.

Fakes his death to acquire fire. Evil shamans light him ablaze. The frog swallows a flame. It multiplies within him. Deposits a blaze by each feather headdress bearer. Vultures pick the flesh from his sleeping body until it becomes a corpse. Ñamandu makes them regurgitate each morsel and piece him back together. Pa-pa Mirí resuscitates.

(The armadillo/Tatu), his mother, beckons him to the old earth. He leaves before filling it with sacred song and flattening all its extension. Leaves us silence and (mountains/mounds of soil). Dies with her. The new one surges.

16 The speaker is Ñamandu. The messenger is anonymous. The recipient is Karaí. Speakers are like characters. Someone mediates their speech, the narrator.
17 The recipient of the message is Jakaira.
18 Thunder is reserved for the God’s unloading of wrath on humans.


Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the ontological poetics of Amerindian literature. Her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy.

Image: Celestial Circles, European Southern Observatory, Creative Commons