Language translation was key to the Conquistadors
The saga of Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés and how he and his force of fewer than 1,000 Spaniards conquered Mexico’s powerful Mexica (commonly known as Aztecs) is the stuff of adventure novels. The whole story (1519 to 1521) pivots on one Mayan-speaking Nahua woman from Mexico’s Gulf Coast, who provided indispensable language translation services to the Conquistadors.
Her Mayan name was Malinalli Malintzin – the Spanish would eventually call her Doña Marina. She provided interpretation services (among other things) to Cortés, but to the conquered people of Central Mexico, she had a far more pejorative moniker: La Malinche. Derived from the Mexican word “malinchista,” it means “traitor” or “one who consorts with foreigners.”
Marina was by no means a volunteer. The tribal leader of the Tabasco natives gave her and 19 other young women as slaves to the Spaniards. It seems that our Nahua maiden was originally the daughter of a noble Aztec family, and her stepfather sold her to some passing traders. She spoke the Aztec language, Nahuatl, as a native and learned Mayan while a slave of the Tabasco Mayan chief.
But Marina was not the first stroke of linguistic luck encountered by Cortés. Joining his group was a shipwrecked Spanish priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who could speak Mayan, but not Nahuatl. Cortés needed someone to converse with the non-Mayan natives as his expedition proceeded inland towards the lands of the Aztecs.
Cortés got lucky once more. One of his men informed him that a young Mayan slave could speak “Mexican.” Cortés enlisted the services of Marina as a translator from Nahuatl to (and from) Mayan. Father de Aguila translated Marina’s Mayan to Spanish. So, the Conquistadors’ first contact with emissaries of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma was through a tandem translation from Spanish to Mayan to Nahuatl, and Marina was the crucial link.
Thus, the first contact between Cortés and the Aztecs was through a local interpreter, who became his loyal secretary and a mistress. Marina quickly mastered Spanish during a time of great turmoil and nearly constant warfare as the Spaniards conquered Aztec client tribes and gained the willing allies that would eventually help him conquer the Aztec capital. (Of course, a devastating smallpox epidemic in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán [today’s Mexico City] accelerated the process somewhat.)
There is no doubt that Doña Marina’s language skills contributed to Cortés’ successful campaign in Mexico. In fact, without her Cortés might have failed. Cortés once wrote in a letter now kept in the Spanish historical archives, “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina. “
As for giving early language translators a bad reputation, it could be argued that Doña Marina helped free the Central Valley of Mexico from the scourge of Aztec oppression and slave tribute as well as the wholesale barbaric practice of human sacrifice to the bloodthirsty Aztec gods. Unfortunately, the short-term consequences of Spanish domination and destruction of a native culture is the stuff for historians to mull over.
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