Malinche Translator

La Malinche, an ambivalent interpreter from the past

Posted on April 20, 2015 · Posted in Translation History

Whenever political alliances, strategies or consultation have been involved, interpreters have always played a key role all along and this was always associated with an enormous level of responsibility. This is, for example, because of how easy it could be for a negotiated truce to break down if each and every word is not translated with a great deal of tactical skill and sensitivity!

Of course, they have frequently received a high level of fame and publicity due to this very important role they have to assume in the face of significant events.

Along these lines, the interpreter, Hermann Kusterer, who had often interpreted for Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, was appointed knight of the Legion of Honour for his services in 2012 as a distinction, having made an important contribution to the reconciliation between the Germans and the French.

Yet, interpreters have existed at all times and in all nations. Even in earlier times, several of them became famous. In part, some of them have even triggered huge controversies. Such as La Malinche, the interpreter for Hernán Cortés, the conquistador of Mexico, then the Aztec Empire…

La Malinche, actually an Aztec woman, was sold to Maya slave traders already as a child and it was surely there that she learned the Mayan language. When Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, he was attacked by the Mayas, who, however, had to surrender very quickly. Among the “prizes” for the victors, among the other women, there was also La Malinche, who lived in Cortés’s entourage from then on.

However, during the course of his campaigns of exploration and conquest, when Cortés encountered Aztecs who did not speak Mayan but Nahuatl instead, such as Cortés actual interpreter, La Malinche’s later role became clearly evident for the first time. Since La Malinche was born as an Aztec, in addition to Mayan, she also spoke Nahuatl and was therefore able to interpret for Cortés. She translated the Nahuatl spoken by the Aztec rulers into the Mayan language; Cortés’s translator then translated that into Spanish. Since La Malinche was additionally able to learn Spanish very quickly, the relay over the Mayan language was soon deemed unnecessary and therefore, La Malinche became indispensible to Cortés. On account of her, he had access to strategically essential information that he, mind you, used against her own people, which was something that La Malinche was quite aware of. Hence, she acted against her own cultural background and her own people in favour of a stranger who wanted to conquer the land and pit the inhabitants against each other. Presumably, Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec Empire, incarnated by the surrender of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City – only on account of her support and consultation.

Her role in history is much disputed. Although incredibly little is known about her life, with the exception of her services as an interpreter for Cortés, she represents a very controversial female figure of the past. For Mexicans, she remains a trader to her own people since she passed on vital information to the conquistadores. In Mexico, “malinchismo” is still a very common word today which means exactly the opposite of patriotism: an abundant interest in the strange and exotic and a high level of appreciation for foreign cultures with respect to your own, which is assessed as being negative.

The question of why she had done this has never been fully clarified. Presumably, La Malinche’s slavery was part of the reason behind this. She was sold to the Mayas by her own family and there she was also handled as such. Thus, she did not experience any form of appreciation from her Aztec environment or from the Maya as slave drivers and therefore, could not establish any type of bond at all with her own culture or her own land. The foreign Spaniards had got her attention and had awoken a curiosity in her for the unknown and the hope of having a better life. When she realised the type of responsibility and also the power she had over Cortés due to her language ability, the opportunities that had arisen outweighed the barely existent bond she had to her culture, from which she had only had negative experiences.

Although her motives still remain unanswered, the enormous significance of an interpreter is evident from this life story. Interpreters are the bridge between various languages – to the advantage of one party or the other.