You longtime followers will remember, back in 2020, when I read a little book called the Popol Vuh, a translation of sorts of ancient American pictograms. It was the only book I was able to find at the time that fit into my tour of ancient world literature which I was then conducting, so I left as an open item finding additional works from the ancient Americas. When I eventually came across Diné Bahaneʼ, billed as the Navajo creation story, it immediately went on my reading list, and I was even more excited when I began the book. Not only is Diné Bahaneʼ exactly what it claims to be, it is also a serious, scholarly treatment of the story, as accurately translated from an oral tradition as Zolbrod could manage.
His introduction itself is worth reading for anyone with an interest in history, historical literature, and translation. Besides discussing work on Diné Bahaneʼ specifically, he provides the most insightful treatment I have yet seen on the art behind making translations, and insight into all of the choices that must go into even straightforward translations, such as from Greek or Latin to English. Diné Bahaneʼ, crossing over to written prose English from an oral tradition in the Navajo language, is an even more difficult task, requiring more fraught decisions at every turn, and Zolbrod makes it abundantly clear how seriously he takes his task. His insights about the nature of literature, and how oral storytelling is a form of preliterate poetry that should not be dismissed from the body of “literature,” are a worthwhile essay in their own right.
As for Diné Bahaneʼ itself, it did not disappoint. Like the best of the other historical works I’ve read, it provided me an immersive experience of the ancient Navajo culture, though unlike a more familiar culture like ancient Greece, I cannot claim that I more than scratched the surface of this fascinating civilization (which, unlike many of the cultures represented in my reading, remains extant today). By virtue of being so unique, even from what I learned from the Popol Vuh and The Inca, this might have been amongst the most fascinating ancient text I read even had the writing been poor and the story dull. Neither was true.
From a gradual evolution from an insectoid state, to the fact that humans created the mortal world by naming it in the Navajo tradition (which reminds me a bit of how Middle Earth was sung into existence in The Silmarillion), to fascinating characters like the Coyote, or epic journeys and monster slaying, the Navajo creation story has everything, and is a truly unique and compelling interpretation of the human experience. If stories are about experiencing vicariously things we can never personally experience so that we can understand them and live for a time with the people involved, Diné Bahaneʼ should be a must-read.
This is part mythological storytelling, and part oral history tradition, and the two blend throughout the text so that you will only separate one from the other if you’re looking. I wish that I were more familiar with present understanding of the history of the region and the peoples who became the Navajo so that I could make more than the few connections I did to real-world events. There is, of course, a flood story, that famous tale that makes it into foundational stories as disparate as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Diné Bahaneʼ.
If I had to give a critique, and it’s not so much a critique as a challenge, it would be the names. As a long-time fantasy reader, and more recently a reader of historical texts, I’m no stranger to weird, difficult to pronounce, difficult to track names, but Diné Bahaneʼ might be the most complicated I’ve read to date. Zolbrod preserves the Navajo names in most instances, and while he will sometimes include an English approximation of the meaning, it does not make it into every instance, obliging the reader to either remember, or look up, long strings of letters that in English don’t look like they should go together, and are full of modifying symbols that most of us have never seen. In fact, there is an entire pronunciation guide to help readers read these Navajo words as they might sound when spoken aloud. All of this probably increases this translation’s value as a work of scholarship and an immortalization of Navajo culture, but it does make the text less approachable.
A simple review cannot begin to encapsulate or even touch upon all of the insights I gained from reading Diné Bahaneʼ, and this is a book I will absolutely be rereading. I know that not all of you share my fascination and interest in reading historical texts, but if you’re going to choose just one, I would encourage you to make it this one. For once, I even have a specific translation to recommend – Zolbrod’s – whether you’re going to read the hundred pages of endnotes or just the story. Truly, this was a valuable read, and I hope that you’ll understand why soon.
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