Interpreters throughout time: La Malinche

There were several names used (still being used) to call this legendary woman: Marina, Malintzin or La Malinche. Still to this day does the mention of her cause confusion and confrontation between those who defend the importance of her figure in history and those for whom this woman was a traitor to her nation and culture.

As is often the case with historical figures from long ago, little is known for sure about La Malinche. It is thought that she was born around the year 1500 in one of the tributary states of the Aztec Empire. It was also believed that she was related in some way to the state’s nobility, due to her command of a register when using the Nahuatl language which only the nobles learned and which was considerably different from the common register.

Although historians and researchers disagree on the reasoning, the truth is that at some point in her childhood Malinche was sold into slavery. This resulted in her learning how to speak and master (probably) several Mayan languages and caused her to end up being offered, along with 19 other female slaves, as a gift to Cortés and his men.

Cortés had a Spanish interpreter, Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had spent eight years as a slave in a Mayan area and spoke their language. However, Gerónimo’s knowledge was not enough to communicate with the various people living in the area. This fact became clear when the Spaniards met with messengers from Moctezuma, who spoke Nahuatl. Given Aguilar’s inability to communicate with them, it was necessary for Marina herself to act as an intermediary, indirectly: she interpreted Nahuatl into Mayan and Aguilar interpreted from Mayan into Spanish. Due to this, communication between Spaniards and Indians could take place thanks to the interpretation method known as relay interpretation.

La Malinche as an interpreter for Cortés

La Malinche como intérprete de Cortés

Image of The History of Tlaxcala, a 15th-century painting. Diego Muñoz Camargo, c. 1585. Source: Wikipedia.

Malintzin began working with Aguilar to act as an intermediary between Cortés and the indigenous people. Cortés spoke Spanish with Aguilar; who translated into Yucatec Maya for Malintzin, who subsequently interpreted into Nahuatl. Of course, this same process occurred in reverse.

However, sometimes this chain of relay was not enough as the languages spoken by some indigenous peoples, such as the people of Totonac, were completely unknown to Cortés’ interpreters. As such, other indigenous interpreters were needed to interpret Nahuatl for Malinche. It seems surprising that such a chain of interpreters could facilitate understanding, but the truth is that thanks to this interpretation, Cortés was able to ally himself with subjugated peoples who opposed Moctezuma’s government. Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish soldier who participated in the conquest of Mexico and who wrote La Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain), stated that thanks to Malinche, Cortés knew in advance that the lords of Cholula were planning an attack against the Spanish army, which was in the city at the time and exercised brutal repression against the Indians. However, this example is usually used to show Malinche’s betrayal and is probably false.

Cortés, Moctezuma and Malinche

When the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, Malinche was in charge of interpreting in the meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés. Some claim that this exchange took place, as it usually did, with Aguilar and Malinche as intermediaries. However, other sources argue that Malinche was the only interpreter since due to her contact with the Spanish she had learned to understand and speak the language.

Although it is believed that Marina was fluent in several languages as well as in several registers, the effectiveness of her interpretation in the meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma has been questioned. This is due to the alleged register that the ruler would have used and with which Marina would not have been totally familiar. Communication between the two was possible, although the interpretation could not have been totally faithful to the original discourse and could have even affected the development of the following events.

Be this as it may, this meeting was key in the process of the Spanish conquest of Mexico since it triggered the series of events that would end with the fall of Tenochtitlan.

La Malinche, a historical figure

The historical figure of La Malinche was both praised and hated throughout history depending on who you asked. Despite this, it is undeniable that her role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico was essential. Several historians at the time went so far as to say that without her it would never have been possible.

We can say, therefore, that Malinche’s role as an interpreter marked the course of history.

La Malinche is one of the few women who stands out in history for her work as an interpreter (and even as a counsellor). Not only does she make her mark in the history books that translators and interpreters follow, but also in the general history of the world. She continues, to this day, to give rise to numerous works that focus on her. This article aims to make a small tribute to her work; which is so important to our profession.


Translated by Christian Copeland.

About Xerezade Ansedes López

Graduate Degree in Translation and Interpreting from Universidade de Vigo, Spain. Degree in English Language and German from Bangor University, UK. English teacher and translator and proofreader in the German and English to Spanish combinations. Published author.

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