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Bertha Koessler-Ilg and Her Mapuche Indian Tales

Although the translation of these books from German into Spanish had been requested and completed a few years earlier, the new edition of Mapuche tales, collected during long years of patient work by Bertha Koessler née Ilg in San Martín de Los Andes, Argentina, was finally launched in May 2007 in Santiago, Chile.

Bertha Koessler was German and born in 1881 at Obernzell, Bavaria. As a young girl she spent some time on the Island of Malta, where an uncle of hers was German consul. There she searched after folkloric and traditional traits of that island’s original people. Later, after studying and graduating as a nurse in Germany, she married the young physician Rudolf Koessler. Together they emigrated to Argentina and lived for some years in Buenos Aires, working at the city’s German Hospital. However, their spirit of adventure had not been satisfied as yet; thus, after being informed that there existed a small town named San Martín de los Andes in the Argentine Patagonia,situs bola far away and undeveloped, where there was no doctor, they decided to visit the place and finally settled there for good. Here they raised their family, and Bertha shared her time between her tasks as a mother and housewife and as her husband’s assistant. But she also dedicated much time to collect old tales of the region’s indigenous population, of which many came to see the doctor, and this was an endeavor she very much enjoyed. With some of these Mapuche Indians she was able to hold long conversations and little by little won their trust so that finally they became her friends.

She tells us that she usually had to make great efforts to overcome the Indians’ natural shyness and reluctance to reveal anything of their Mapuche background, because that was thought to be against the commandments of their deities. However, slowly and patiently Frau Bertha was able to win their confidence while learning their language, the Mapudungun. She must have mastered the tongue very well as becomes evident from the German explanations she adds to each Mapudungun term. In the evenings, after having listened attentively to the stories the Mapuche Indians told her, she sat down and carefully recorded them in German, inserting original Mapudungun expressions followed by the German translations of their meaning.

Although Frau Bertha spoke seven languages, including Arabian and Mapudungun, German was her native tongue and it is not only logical that she preferred to express her thoughts in this language, but it was also the correct procedure, as we translators very well know.

The collection of her manuscripts is very extensive and includes not only tales as such, but also a complete research of the indigenous culture with poems, songs, prayers, magical practices, riddles, children’s games, traditions and even a glossary of the Mapudungun language. This first part of her work was published in 1962 by the Instituto de Filología de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Buenos Aires and now has been reprinted without changes. However, her collection of Mapuche myths and legends, tales and fables had not been published at all, possibly due to the fact that they were all written in German. In spite of Frau Berta’s great efforts to find persons or a publishing company who would show interest for the subject, compile and publish her work, she did not succeed. Thus, many years went by, and the valuable collection stayed unpublished.

At her time the Mapudungun language was not generally considered as important as, for instance, the Quechua or the Guaraní, which have been conserved and spoken by the natives of Perú and Bolivia and of Paraguay even after the Spanish conquest and colonial times, until today. At present that concept has changed in favor of the Mapudungun thanks to important studies undertaken by some Catholic priests, mainly Father Ernesto Wilhelm Moesbach, who lived and worked in the Chilean Araucanía region and published glossaries of the Mapudungun language (Voz de Arauco, first edition July 1944. Registration number 10492, printed in Padre Las Casas, Chile).

The Koessler family wanted to meet Frau Bertha’s wish to compile all of their grandmother’s tales and publish them in Spanish, even more so after Bertha Koessler died in 1965 without having been able to accomplish her goal. In Chile, the anthropologist Rolf Foerster and Juan Arribas, Director of the Spanish publisher Mare Nostrum, in addition to other personalities, undertook the task and thus, after many years and hindrances, Bertha Koessler’s tales collection landed on my desk with the request to translate them into Spanish. They make up for two more volumes.

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