Faculty Member Ben Leeming Wins Prestigious NEH Fellowship

The National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship is a prestigious, highly competitive program that supports scholarship in the humanities for up to a year. Among the 8 percent of applicants who were chosen for the fellowship this year are university professors, scholars affiliated with museums and other institutions, foundations—and one high school teacher.
The Rivers community was delighted to learn late last week that history faculty member Ben Leeming has been awarded an NEH Fellowship to support his work translating the Newberry Library’s Nahuatl (Aztec) Sermonary. The Sermonary is a collection of 64 sermons written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, in the 1540s. Leeming has spent many years mastering the Nahuatl language, which was necessary to undertake this translation; the fellowship will allow him to complete the work. The University of Utah Press will publish his forthcoming book on the subject, following his fellowship year.
We asked Leeming a few questions about his work and his plans for the fellowship. His remarks, in edited form, follow.
First off, how do you pronounce the word “Nahuatl”?
The easiest way is to put the emphasis on the first syllable: NAH-watt. The final “l” is not silent, but it’s a hard sound to produce. The Spaniards struggled so much with it over time that Spanish speakers eventually dropped the “tl” and added “te” in its place. That’s why we have words in Spanish like tomate and coyote and aguacate, which exist in Nahuatl as tomatl, coyotl, and ahuacatl.
What is the Nahuatl Sermonary? Why is it significant?
I’m conscious of the fact that to the average person it sounds profoundly esoteric, but it’s a very important early example of Indigenous writings about European subjects. One of the most profound consequences of the Old World and the New World encountering each other in the early 16th century is that you had all these rich examples of translation—not just of language but of culture. These two civilizations had to find ways to understand each other and make sense of each other. The first Europeans to do this kind of cultural translation were members of the Franciscan order, who arrived as missionaries. These early Franciscans spent a number of years learning the languages. They were working with native speakers, usually Indigenous nobility chosen to get a European education, who served as teachers and interpreters, teaching the friars how to speak the language. The friars learned to speak and then to write, adapting Nahuatl to the Roman alphabet, and set out to write the kind of texts needed for large-scale indoctrination. What makes the collection I’m working on important is that they are the earliest surviving products of the initial attempts to translate Christianity for the Indigenous people. Dating from the 1540s, they are among the earliest surviving examples of any kind of writing in Indigenous languages in the Americas.
The other big reason is the figure associated with them, Bernardino de Sahagún, one of the most important and well-known historical figures in Mexican history—like a founding father in Mexican culture. Between the 1540s and 1570s, he oversaw a project to document Aztec history and culture, resulting in what some call a cultural encyclopedia. It’s the most invaluable source we have of Aztec history and culture; without it we would know much less. Sahagún’s religious writing has been eclipsed by this “encyclopedia.” I’m taking a close look for the first time at these religious writings as potential sources of understanding the cultural and religious world of these peoples. The sermons are important because of their connection to Sahagún. [Although he is not their sole author,] Sahagún’s handwriting is all over the manuscripts. He had a role in it, though was likely written by a team of four to six Indigenous scholars, educated in European languages.
How did you become interested in this subject?
I was working on my master’s in history in the early 2000s. One of the courses was on Mesoamerican civilization—Aztecs and Mayas from prehistory to present. I learned that there was a great number of primary documents written in this Indigenous language called Nahuatl, literally thousands and thousands of pages of documentation. They’re just lying in archives and libraries and church basements, scattered all over. On a whim, I thought it would be interesting to see what this language was like. I ordered a book that was a guide to learning classical or colonial Nahuatl, and I got instantly hooked.
It started as a hobby, but I quickly got very serious about it and started seeking out tutelage from those who knew the language. I got connected with a small community of scholars who met annually in New England to present papers and work on translations, and I got a couple of members of that group to tutor me. This was a time in my life when we were having lots of children [Asher ’17, Caleb ’19, Maggie ’21, Rinny ’23]. It was a busy and stressful time; this was my private project that I could do when I grabbed a coffee at Starbucks on weekends or at night after the kids were in bed. It gradually dawned on me that it was more than a hobby; I wanted to get good enough to read and translate. So I enrolled in a summer intensive course in Mexico. For two months, we moved the whole family to Mexico. That was in 2009. Everyone in the program was a grad student working on their master’s or doctorate, and I started to ask myself if I needed to go back to school. I reached out to a particular scholar who works with Nahuatl Christian materials at SUNY Albany. She was very supportive of my interest in studying, and Rivers was very generous in giving me a sabbatical. I spent that year splitting my time between Albany and Framingham. That was a pretty intense year. I eventually finished my doctoral program and graduated in 2017. I’ve spent about 15 years learning the language, and I’m now equipped to tackle the project.
What is it like to study a non-Indo-European language?
It’s very challenging. When you’re trying to read something in French or Italian, and you’ve had some Spanish, you can get the flavor of it. But for this, you have to rewire how you think about language. The syntax is different. I can read fluently, but if I had to have a conversation I’d be lost. I could carry on a decent conversation with a 4-year-old.
What made you decide to pursue the NEH fellowship?
It’s one of the only fellowships that will fund a full year of full-time scholarship. I applied to it because I knew I wanted to devote myself 100 percent to a project like this, and the options were limited. Because there are so few fellowships like this, they are extremely competitive. I didn’t tell anyone I had applied.
Over the past decade I’ve worked hard to carve out a niche for myself as a passionately committed high school teacher who also happens to be passionately committed to independent scholarship. It hasn’t always been easy, but I find my scholarship enriches my teaching and my teaching enriches my scholarship. Winning this fellowship feels like a nice validation of the independent scholar part of that equation.
What did you have to do to apply?
The application is quite extensive. You’re writing a narrative, your pitch for why they would fund you. You need to make a strong case why your project is valuable to the humanities, so I tried to frame the project in such a way that it would be perceived as important. We’re in the midst of some important anniversaries: The 1519 to 1521 Spanish Aztec War marked the beginning of the period of contact between the civilizations. So in this anniversary season of those initial contacts, it seems like an especially appropriate time to understand the type of literature that was produced as a result of the collision of cultures.
How did you find out you had been selected?
It was an email, followed by a formal letter. I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it. [Daughter] Maggie had just gotten her early-decision news, and I found out about the fellowship soon after, on December 15. These were very special holiday gifts.
The Newberry Library, which houses the manuscript, is in Chicago. Will you be relocating there?
The wonderful thing about technology is that these libraries and archives are digitizing their collections. The manuscript is available for anyone to see. If you look at it, you will see it’s very daunting—even just the work to decipher the handwriting.  But I’d like to spend a week in Chicago, checking over the work. I’m going to have to convince the Newberry to let me handle the manuscript. Normally, with the right credentials, you could, but this manuscript is in such fragile condition, they’re not even letting scholars look at it in the building. I’m hoping to convince them.
For me it is essential to have the physical connection, to handle something as precious as this. It’s one of the things I find so exhilarating as a translator. You make such a direct and immediate connection with those who wrote the material. It’s so cool to unlock through translation what has been closed off for centuries—like an archaeologist opening a tomb that’s been sealed for ages.  I’m trying to make sense of these precious materials that have sat for so long, exposing things that have been hidden.