La Malinche

After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Dona Marina”. (Hernan Cortes)

I have great respect for translators and my international work would not be possible without their linguistic skills. Over time, I learned that I would need to understand enough of the language of a country where I am presenting in order to know if and when I am being mis-translated. Nevertheless, I have yet to become skilled enough to present in any language other than my own American English. During these international travels I have noticed that various cultures have a wide range of attitudes toward translators. In Mexico, for example, my translator for many years, a dual citizen of the USA and Mexico, equally at home in both cultures, is often treated with disrespect if not outright hostility, as she said, like a “resented outsider” or “some sort of slave”. This is interesting language and I asked her to elaborate on her most interesting systemic perspective. In Mexican history, she explained, the first translator for Cortes from Mayan to Aztec and then to Spanish, was a slave who is considered by many to be a traitor to her people.

In April 1519, conquering Spaniards were presented with 20 women servants by the defeated Mayans of Tabasco. One of these women was soon discovered to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs, and she quickly learned Spanish. Born into a noble Aztec family in 1496, she was given the name Malinali and later given over to Mayan slave traders along the Gulf Coast. Cortes arrived in 1521 and she soon moved into place as his translator, secretary, cultural advisor and lover. At the time of her baptism and conversion to Christianity she took the name Marina. The Aztecs addressed Cortes as Malinche or “captain”, and Malinali became known as La Malinche, “the captain’s woman”. Also known by the honorific title of Dona Marina, she gave birth to their son Don Martin who is considered by many to be one of the first Mestizo Mexicans of both indigenous and European ancestry. The date and circumstances of her death remain unknown although there may be reason to speculate that she died around 1551.

Now in our 21st century La Malinche remains a fascinating and controversial figure. According to some, she represents someone who betrayed her indigenous people to the Spaniards and the word “malinchismo” is a pejorative used by contemporary Mexicans to refer to fellow countrymen who prefer a way of life different from their own local culture. Others point out that she may have saved many from the cruelty of the Aztecs, been the “Mother of Mexican Culture” and even may be credited with fostering Christianity throughout the New World. Recently, feminists have portrayed La Malinche as a victim of forces beyond her control. Over time her image has evolved into various versions of archetype, myth and legend as varied as the labyrinthine Mexican culture with its ever changing social and political perspectives. (For more information see Cypress, Sandra Messinger. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth: University of Texas Press,1991)

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