translator la malinche

Stories of translators: La Malinche

The mother of a whole people, a slave and a translator: here’s the unique story of La Malinche, the wife and interpreter of Hernan Cortes.

She was the daughter of a cacique, the mother of a whole people, a slave and a translator: here’s the unique story of La Malinche, the wife and interpreter of Hernan Cortes.

Malinalli: the daughter of the cacique

Everything had started off well: Malinalli was born in the early years of the sixteenth century in an idyllic village in the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, her father was a noble and powerful cacique and her mother, young and beautiful. However, the story got complicated rather quickly and dramatically: her father died, her mother remarried and had more children. She became something of a Cinderella of the New World; she was sold to a group of slave traders, then given to the Mayans as a tribute of war after a conflict with the Mexica and finally offered to Hernán Cortés following the Battle of Centla in 1519.

Tenepal: the one who speaks intelligently

But Malinalli had a natural talent: from her childhood she was nicknamed Tenepal, “the one who speaks intelligently”. Her mother tongue was Nahuatl (the language of Nahua or Mexica), but having been sold very young to Mayan masters, she became fluent in their language, Maya-Yucateca. Furthermore, when she fell into Cortés’ hands, she became his interpreter and was then fluent in Spanish (working in tandem with Jerónimo de Aguilar, a former prisoner of the Maya who was a Mayan-Spanish interpreter).

Marina: the treacherous

Nowadays in Mexico, “malinchisme” refers pejoratively to those who prefer an imported lifestyle to their own culture. Some historians argue that without her language services the conquest wouldn’t have been as fast and that the Amerindians would have had time to adapt to the technologies of their invaders. The conquistadors who accompanied Cortés indeed described her as the main reason to the success of the conquest, after God. And the natives of the time seemed to agree: the manuscripts of Tlaxcala not only seldom showed Cortés without Marina (her Christian name), but more than once she appeared alone, exercising an independent authority.

La Malinche: the heroine and the victim

But La Malinche was also the founder of the Mexican nation and the mother of a new people: her son Martín Cortés is indeed considered one of the first Métis in American history. She was also the one who saved her people from Aztec assaults and the one who influenced Cortés to treat his opponents more humanely. The feminist movement has long insisted that we see in her the victim that she was: a woman caught between two cultures, caught in a war between three peoples, sold, married by her owner, mother of a child who personifies the shock between two civilizations…

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This article has been written by Mathieu

Mathieu was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After studying Literature and Linguistic Research, he moved to Argentina where he is currently a translator and a web editor.