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La Malinche: she wasn't a certified translator, but her role translating for the Spanish was crucial


The history of the conquest of Mexico would not have been the same without Hernán Cortés’ translator, variously know as La Malinche, Doña Marina and even, in Mexico, La Chingada. The contemporary sources that we have on this early translator are unfortunately very scarce, confusing and often contradictory in nature. Mystery surrounds her from the start. Malinche was, apparently, the daughter of a powerful family. She was also known as Malintzin, and this is what the suffix "-zin” would suggest. This word ending, in the Nahuatl language, represented a term of respect equivalent to the English title "Madam" or “Lady”. But the writings about her origins are full of contradictory details. Was she the daughter of "rich parents"? One version suggests they were chieftains who ruled over neighbouring vassal states. But, if so, it is still not clear where they lived or originated from. Bernal Díaz del Castillo places the family home in Painala. Francisco López de Gómara, on the other hand, in Viluta.

According to the most widespread version of the story, after her father died at a young age, Malinche’s mother married another local ruler. This union produced a male child, meaning that the boy would go on to the take the rights as future chieftain from his older sister. In order that she would not cause any trouble for her younger brother, she was given away or perhaps sold to the local peoples of Xicalango. From there she was transported to Tabasco, from where in turn she was passed over to the Spanish, recently arrived from their colony in Cuba. In those days of course, no visas or certified translations were needed!

So, according to this story, La Malinche ending up with the recently arrived Spanish began with a problem of inheritance? The idea, unfortunately, seems implausible. For a start, because succession rights among the inhabitants of these regions of Mexico, passed between brothers, not from parents to children. A second argument that discredits this theory is the fact that Marina - a Christian name she received after being baptised - as a woman, would have been no rival for any brother.

Lopez de Gomara, in his writings on the subject, states only that the young Marina was kidnapped by merchants in the course of a war and sold as a slave. Was this so? It really is impossible to know the exact details of her coming into the hands of Spanish. The only certainty is that she ended up as a slave of an important Spanish officer, Captain Alonso Hernández de Portocarrero, a cousin of the Count of Medellín. However, we know that he returned to Spain soon after. Did Cortés send him back because he wanted the beautiful local woman for himself? One of the conqueror's biographers, Richard Lee Marks, points out that not even his enemies claimed such a thing. Marks explains the matter in a straightforward manner: Cortés had to send an emissary to the court of Charles V, and he chose the one who by lineage could best represent him.

In the conquest of Mexico, Malinche's linguistic ability would prove decisive. For the Spaniards, confronted with unknown peoples who spoke languages ​​they did not know, the problem of communication became one of the most arduous. There was no certainty that the indigenous population understood a message accurately. Things got complicated, because the local peoples did not speak just one, but many languages. Pre-Hispanic Mexico, however, had a lingua franca that was equivalent to the Latin of old Europe, and that was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Their dominance over the region throughout which they extracted tribute and controlled trade had led to their native language being widely understood across vast swathes of Meso-American territory.

So, the native peoples of the area were well practised in dealing with outsiders, but the arrival of strange bearded white men from the East brought about an unprecedented situation. Marked by mutual ignorance, both sides had to improvise. In the beginning, gestures replaced the words. But this situation could not be prolonged indefinitely, and a translator had to be found. A temporary and imperfect solution was arrived at, but one that solved many of the initial problems. La Malinche translated from Nahuatl to Mayan, which she had learned during her time in Tabasco, while one of Cortes’ men, Jerónimo de Aguilar, who understood Mayan, was in charge of translating her words to Spanish so that Cortés could understand the message. De Aguilar had found himself shipwrecked off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula some 8 years earlier, after which was been captured and taken into slavery by the lord of a local tribe. In this time De Aguilar had learned the local language and eventually been freed and married a rich Mayan woman. Translating Aztec through La Malinche and De Aguilar was, however, not as straightforward as it might sound - Malinche was a speaker of Chontal Maya, while De Aguilar had learned the Mayan of his place of enslavement in the Yucatan. There were significant differences between these dialects and hence intelligibility will have been an issue. It is most likely that conversations had to revolve around basic issues. Sometimes, the situation was complicated by the presence of a third interpreter, as happened in Cempoala, where they had to translate from Totonac to Nahuatl.

Was Malinche’s role limited to that of a simple translator? Even if she had not done anything else, that function placed her in a privileged position. The success of the operation depended of her, and that often added up to the difference between life and death, and in the end the survival or fall of the mighty Aztec empire. Cortés even wrote that “After God, we owe the conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina”. La Malinche was not a certified translator, nor even a professional one, of that we can be sure. But her background and therefore her linguistic knowledge made her a perfect candidate to assist in the immensely significant historical events of the conquest of Mexico. Our certified translation service may not lead to outcomes of such profound global importance, but they are certainly very important nonetheless. Whatever formal procedures you need a certified translation for, whether it be immigration, visa, educational or medical requirements, we’re here to help with the highest quality official translations at the lowest prices, guaranteed.


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