God in Heaven and the Virgin

God in Heaven and the Virgin: What‘s in a (translated) word – Tupí and Quechua

Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz*

At a meeting organised by Cândida Barros (Museu Goeldi, Belém) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State (UNIRIO) in November 2012, comparative aspects of 16th to 18th century Christianisation were discussed among herself, specialised in ethnolinguistic questions of Brazilian colonial history of indigenous conversion, Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar (University of Stirling, Great Britain), ethnohistorian and ethnolinguist with a particular interest in the Amerindian colonial Andes), and Ruth Monserrat (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, linguist focusing on colonial Tupí and modern Amerindian languages of Brazil), including the attendance of two PhD students (Ana Paula da Silva/UNIRIO y Jaqueline Mota/Universidade de São Paulo).**

As the missionary order which played the most important role in the South American Christianisation enterprise was that of the Jesuits, one of the discussion topics was a comparison of their linguistics, in terms of policies as well as materials produced for the catechisation of the ‘Indians’ in the Andes and in Brazil.

The peoples the missionaries met and who became the targets of their evangelising efforts were considered by them in terms of the classical ‘other’: uncivilised and barbarian, being the victims of the Devil and not believing in God; yet the missionaries also recognised them as being very different from each other. The Tupí–speaking native peoples of the Brazilian coast lived in groups which were mainly governed by chiefs in case conflicts would arise, i. e. wars with others were threatening a community, but they did not have the elaborate and centralised state organisation the Incas had established at the beginning of the 16th century. And although the Jesuit missionaries in both areas belonged to the same order and therefore – one might think – to similar power structures, the Brazilian Jesuits received an almost unlimited authority over their ‘Indians’ from the Portuguese Crown, whereas the Peruvian part of the order was much more integrated into the interplay between the Spanish Crown, the secular clergy, and missionary orders, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans as well as the Jesuits.

With these differences in mind we studied and compared Amerindian language prayers which were translated in the colonial era into Tupí in Brazil and into Quechua in the Andes.

It has to be observed that the main Christian prayers and the doctrine were translated into the native peoples’  languages. It was also a considerable original achievement of the missionaries who were (or became) linguists to describe languages alien to European linguistic structures.

How did the missionary linguists transmit important Christian concepts? And where there any differences between the two Christian(ised) ‘general’ languages Quechua and Tupí? Obviously the prayers contain general concepts, such as ‘name’ or ‘day’ which would have existed in most languages and were relatively easy to translate. But how would one address the ‘Lord’, ‘our Father’ or the Virgin Mary; what idea of ‘heaven’ or ‘grace’ would be conveyed?

Certain words were kept in Spanish/Portuguese, such as ‘grace’ (in the Ave Maria) – possibly because of the lively debate which took place about it at the time. When looking at the Paternoster prayer in both languages, we detect certain differences as to these loanwords which were very few in number in general, such as ‘amen’ and, in other canonical prayers, names such as ‘Eve’ or ‘Jesus’. But we note a difference: whilst in 1618 Tupí the terms stand alone as loanwords, already in 1584 Quechua they are embedded in this language’s grammar, for example, formed into a genitive.

Other words which one might also consider to imply particular Christian meanings and yet are clearly of a universal character, such as ‘temptation’, are treated differently: in Quechua a vernacular word is used, apparently common also in other contexts, whereas in Tupí the Portuguese “tentaçaõ” is maintained.

In the Quechua Sign of the Cross, ‘our Lord God’ is translated as “Dios apuycu”, literally ‘God our powerful lord’, with “apu” not only referring to an economically and politically important person, but also being the name of the highest mountain spirits (called Apu until the present). In Tupí, on the other hand, the term used to render ‘God’, is “Tupã”, which – as we know from other colonial sources – referred to the Thunder. Both translations show the familiarity of the priests with the respective indigenous cultures, but also seem to open the door for the new believers to see the Christian God as one of ‘their own’.

Whilst God is addressed as ‘our Father’ in both languages, evoking an asymmetrical relationship with a more powerful being, be it a spiritual and/or a ‘secular’ one, the term for the ’kingdom‘ of this God is kept in Portuguese in the Tupí prayer: “Reyno”, but in Quechua it is translated as ‘to be in the state of power’ (“capac cay”), “capac” meaning ‘powerful’, a term which is frequently associated with the Inca king as “capac Inca”. Maybe the reason is that there was no ‘kingdom’–like kind of organisation among the Tupís.

In Tupí a vernacular word for ‘heaven’ is used: “igbá”. An approximate idea of its meaning in colonial Guaraní, another member of the same language family, “ĭbá” means ‘high, up (there)’ so that it seems to be probable that the missionaries extended the meaning of the physical ‘upper sphere’ to the Christian Heaven.

In Quechua we find the compound “hanac pacha”, probably coined by the missionaries. Literally it means ‘the world above’; both lexical elements exist(ed) in the language, but it is doubtful that the object denoted by their composition did as a clearly defined concept.

Another difference which may reflect not only varying translation methods, also shows how the authors saw or understood the indigenous societies they were confronted with. The Virgin Mary, for example, is described in Tupí as “Maria ababî cagoereima çûi”, literally ‘the one who is not pierced/perforated’, clearly referring to a concept of virginity which the Tupí might not have. In Quechua, Virgin is kept as a proper name, and she is addressed as the “coya”, the word used for the legitimate Inca wife. In Tupí the early usage might have caused confusion or simple incomprehension; in Quechua the resonance of God as “apu” (‘lord’ and ‘highest spiritual being’) and the Virgin as “coya” (Inca wife) may have helped to understand the Christian concepts but embedding them into the Quechua cosmovision.

On the basis of the very few examples we can see that the missionaries went different ways in their translation efforts which, rather than a common (in this case) Jesuit strategy, seem to have been personal methods based on the particular understanding and interpretation of the native cultures which they seem to have considered as more ‘primitive’ (in the case of Tupí) or more ‘civilised’ (in the case of Quechua).

It should be noted that, of course, like all prayers, these were learned by heart and memorised, and maybe more than a questioning of what they ‘really meant’, their meaning lay (and in the Quechua case still lies) in the contextualisation, the ritual of the mass, the choral address of a superior spiritual being, and in this way they somehow supported a community’s or ethnic identity of those who pray(ed). Thus the translation highlights differences in colonial thought and structure, but also emphasises the power a common prayer has, be it now integrated in a Catholic mass or an Andean offering ritual.


Araujo, Antonio de: Catecismo. Na lingoa brasilica, no qual se contem a summa da doctrina christã …. Lisboa: Pedro Crasbeeck, 1618. Bibliotheca Nacional de Lisboa (Portugal) copy digitised on the Internet: http://purl.pt/22940/2/ (21.11.2012).

Tercer Concilio de Lima (ed.): Doctrina christiana y catecismo para instrvccion de los indios …  Ciudad de los Reyes [Lima]: Antonio Ricardo, 1584. John Carter Brown Library (USA) copy digitised on the Internet: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24440872M/Doctrina_christiana_y_catecismo_para_
instruccion_de_los_indios_y_de_las_de_mas_personas_que_han_de_ser_enseñadas_en_nuestra_sancta_fé (10.04.2012).


* The elaboration of this text is based on ideas developed together with Cândida Barros.

** The meeting was financed by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland (http://www.carnegie-trust.org) and the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cientifico e Tecnológico, Brazil (http://www.cnpq.br).

January 2013