The role of the 16th. Century interpreters in the newly discovered world.

January 17, 2013 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

My posting about Malintzin, the first interpreter of the new world, a few months ago was very welcomed in Mexico and other countries, but some people, mostly from countries other than Mexico, did not like what I said and attacked her and other interpreters who assisted the Spanish conquistadors during the conquest of the newly discovered world.  I welcome the debate as I think it is fruitful and helpful; it is interesting that some interpreters posted comments criticizing the role of Malintzin in Mexico and Felipillo in Peru and other South American countries as bad interpreters due to their lack of impartiality. These comments motivated me to write this post as I believe that their role is being misunderstood and therefore wrongly criticized.

Malintzin, Felipillo, and all other interpreters used by the conquistadors were military interpreters.   I understand that many of my colleagues come from a court interpreting background where they have been told that the interpreter must be impartial. That is true in a court setting, but it does not apply to all fields of interpretation.  As a military interpreter instructor at the Defense Language Institute I can tell you that the role of the military interpreter is very different. When interpreting for the armed forces, the interpreter needs to be loyal to the platoon that he or she belongs to. A crucial part of a military interpreter’s job is to do everything possible to assure the success of the mission.   The military interpreter interprets for the party he works for, not for both parties. He conveys to the enemy what his side needs him and wants him to know, nothing else.  A military interpreter brings up to his commander his impressions and suspicions about the enemy’s words, attitudes, and everything else he may consider important and relevant to his side. There is not such a thing as impartiality in military interpreting as the parties are not equal; one of them is called enemy.  After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. Century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. Century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires. In other words: They had no duty of loyalty to their tyrants; in fact, they had a very understandable resentment and perhaps hatred for their oppressors.

Felipillo is shown in color

There were big differences between Malintzin and Felipillo, the two best-known interpreters of the new world.  Malintzin was, by all accounts, an extremely capable interpreter, very effective, talented, and hard-working.  During the conquest of Tenochtitlan she got the respect and maybe the admiration of many Spaniards. Considering all circumstances, she had a good life.  On the other hand, there are many reports that describe Felipillo, who appears on the records as an interpreter almost a decade after Malintzin, as a mediocre interpreter; he did not command any of his working languages as he should, apparently he had a problem with alcohol and found himself entangled in intrigue and gossip involving women.  As part of the criticism to Felipillo, most historians argue that he misinterpreted for Pizarro, conspired with the natives, used religion to advance his own interests, and when in Chile he sided with the locals against Diego de Almagro committing a capital sin for the military interpreter: to be partial towards the enemy. This sole act that has been considered by some as his vindication with the indigenous cause, and maybe that is true and correct from a moral point of view, was his worse professional and ethical act as an interpreter, and ultimately cost him his life. In other words: There were good and bad interpreters during the conquest of the new world.

The last issue that has been raised by many begs for an answer to the question: Were the native interpreters a bunch of traitors?  We know that at least the better-known ones were not fellow citizens of the empires to be conquered (Aztecs and Incas) We also know that their job was to do military interpretation, and their faults and mistakes came from their mediocrity as interpreters, personal problems, their own ambition, and perhaps a change of heart after they realized what the Spanish armies were doing to the peoples of other native nations. Then, why is it that some people view them as traitors anyway? This is a very difficult question. Most of those who attack these interpreters, particularly Malintzin, because she did a good professional job, believe that they had to side with the other local natives and not the Spaniards. To arrive to this conclusion we have to ignore the reality of the times: The Aztecs and Incas were oppressors to these people; the Spanish conquistadors had done nothing against them. The topic is even more complex when we realize that most who complain and criticize Malintzin and the others are not indigenous people, they are the result of the fusion of the two cultures and races, and most of them have Spanish last names, speak Spanish, and follow one of the European religions. One could say that to attack Malintzin and the others is to attack their very origin. There is a verb “malinchismo” in the Dictionary, but it does not mean to betray anybody. It means “Attitude of attachment to the foreign and contempt for one’s own.”  Malintzin was not a member of the Aztec Empire. I would like to read your comments and opinions about the professional duties of military interpreters as it is applicable to many who are currently interpreting for our military forces in conflict zones around the world.

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§ 14 Responses to The role of the 16th. Century interpreters in the newly discovered world.

  • Armando Ezquerra Hasbun says:

    Excellent insights. Thank you!

  • As (one of?) the first to question publicly AIIC’s choice of La Malinche as a symbol or model of a precursor of the interpreting profession, I feel compelled to comment on your remarks simply by pointing out that I am not “the result of the fusion of the two cultures and races”, as I have no connection, attachment or affinity to any “indigenous Mexican races or cultures”. My resoundingly peninsular Iberian ancestors had their roots in Cantabria and Euzkadi going back to the 11th century and earlier, and so do all their surnames.

    Additionally, I follow no “European religion”. I happen to be an agnostic.

    My initial post on facebook was nothing more than an expression of mild amusement and surprise in the face of the Mexican connotation of the name Malinche.

    You inadvertently refer to “malinchismo” as “a verb” [sic]. It is, of course, a noun. Its connotation is clearly pejorative as used by Mexicans of Mestizo or Indigenous ancestry, not as used by yours truly. It is also not a part of my spontaneous, active vocabulary. La Malinche is a subject that had not crossed my mind in three decades.

    Finally, I submit that the task of the military interpreter should not be functionally different from that of a court interpreter. The military strategist and intelligent gatherer requires the same degree of accuracy as the trier of fact in a courtroom.

    Kindly overlook all typos or non sequitors contained herein as the direct result of neurological cognitive and language impairments I the undersigned has sustained due to frontotemporal lobar damage in recent years. Thank you.


    “The military strategist and intelligent gatherer…” should read: ‘The military strategist and intelligence gatherer…”

  • Bora says:

    The first interpreter was a woman – amazing! What a great way for a profession to come into existence 🙂
    Jokes aside, I have personally found it very natural to be neutral during interpretation, regardless of who’s talking. I simply follow the words! Often there is no time to even follow the substance, but you understand the words… And it’s fun because I feel like I’m dubbing in a movie :))

  • Thank you Tony, for a very thought-provoking article. I would like to comment on the role of the military interpreter and agree with you, that it is utterly distinct from that of the court interpreter. The kinds of situations that our military linguists defy our imagination and require a quick-thinking nuanced response in settings that are unpredictable, where one wrong move might lead to physical harm and even death.

    I have had the privilege to train military interpreters through the Defense Language Institute (once with you!) on several occasions, and I also gained a lot of information and insight at the Interpreting in Conflict Zones panel I helped organized at last year’s InterpretAmerica Summit.

    Two stories illustrate how the role of the military interpreter is very distinct.

    One of our young panelists, a O9-Lima soldier, part of army’s interpreter and translation unit. shared a story of being in Iraq in the early part of the war. He was with his company when they were surrounded by a flash mob it was up to his skill or lack thereof to calm the situation through interpreting and words, rather than fighting. Imagine this young man, who would have been in his early 20s, new to war, adrenaline racing, heart pounding, still having the wherewithal to access his language skills and successfully interpret between two actively hostile parties to avoid possible death.

    With all due respect to my court interpreter colleagues, and for all the adversarial nature of the court setting, none of us face this kind of personal physical danger nor are the lives of our colleagues and surrounding citizens literally resting on our shoulders as we perform our duties.

    Another story: Listening to a military interpreter talk about mission preparation and how he was asked to play different roles depending on the mission objective in Afghanistan. Sometimes his role was to be right by his commander’s side during house raids, when he was the voice of power and submission – open the door before we force entry. Etc. Then other times this young pashto-speaking man who immigrated to the US with his family when he was a teen would be asked to be not only the interpreter, but the cultural broker meeting with village elders, responsible for knowing all the complex proper social protocols for meeting with leader and negotiating their position. The outcomes of those meetings were critical in determining whether his unit would find safety or conflict.

    I think of these stories and others shared during these training courses. One thing is crystal clear to me, as a profession we are far too divorced from this very important sector of interpreting and translation. We don’t have a good understanding of the military interpreter role and our civilian profession is for the most part separate from the military structure that trains and then deploys these young men and women into conflict, who then must figure out their proper role and conduct.

    Your blog is very timely Tony, as more and more of these young men and women are coming home and leaving the military. The question I put to everyone is what can we do to welcome them into our profession and help them with the transition from military to civilian life?

    • Veronica says:

      In reference to the “cultural broker”, the boy that emigrated to the States with his family. Is he not siding with the enemy?

  • Mario Beer says:

    Can we at last have an end to the use of that passing ridiculous expression “men and women”, now a clichéed codeword indicating nothing else than where one’s partiality is invested, when one could just as well use correct language and call them, according to the precise context, soldiers, people, troops, etc.?

  • Powerful insights, and a lucid and articulate commentary. Thanks so much for writing this and getting us to think deeply.

  • Thérèse Marie Mirande says:

    I thank you for making some very valid points about the complexity of Malintzin’s relationship to both the Spaniards and the Aztecs, and would like to add that it is absurd to hold 16th-century interpreters to codes of ethics developed centuries later.
    I must take issue, however, with the idea that “There is not such a thing as impartiality in military interpreting as the parties are not equal; one of them is called enemy.” Anyone that follows the news, not necessarily closely, or has just read Katharine’s reply to this post–I had the good fortune to be present for the panel and found it quite inspiring–knows that military interpreters work with parties that are not necessarily the enemy. This is critically important as today’s conflict zones are complex webs of enemies, friends and those that may be pushed in one direction or the other by the smallest gesture or phrase.
    One of the most important aspects of impartiality in interpreting is to allow the parties to truly communicate with one another as equals. Effective communication might actually reduce or prevent hostility. I do know that if I were in the military and relying on the an interpreter, I would value the interpreter’s guidance with respect to the culture, but would want to trust that my message was being conveyed accurately, not being edited by my interpreter.

  • Sedat Mulayim says:

    I think you are comparing apples with pears! The impartiality is a requirement for a professional interpreter, who, both sides in a communicative event, agree to rely on for communication and expect impartiality. It is not something an interpreter can decide to obey with. A military interpreter is essentially a bilingual staff member who can interpret as well as fight, cook or do other tasks. They are more like ‘bilingual aides’. They cannot be expected to be impartial. if, however, you were negotiating a truce with the enemy, they would either expect a professional interpreter bound by impartiality or they would bring their own interpreter along as they would not trust your interpreter, similar to what the government heads do in their meetings.

    • But this is precisely why there needs to be a process to create formal professional ethics in this field, as in others. Negotiations are not the same as interrogations, or going village to village hunting down someone, and so forth. Without formal ethics, everything is a mishmash and there is no guidance.

      For the record, in healthcare interpreting we do not distinguish between ethics for professional interpreters and for bilingual staff–bilingual staff during the session must strive to be neutral until they leave the interpreted session, when they can resume their typical work duties. In reality that line is of course very tricky, and difficult to navigate, but neutrality for interpreters in ANY setting is tough. Neutrality is goal only for their behavior and conduct, furthermore, since in reality no one is internally neutral.

  • Sandra Reul says:

    I am an interpreter now but served in the military as an officer for 8 years before that in a fighter squadron. Tony Rosado is correct; the mission is primary. In the civilian world it is different. These 2 worlds are just not the same. Any good soldier will attest to this.

    • Which is why we need professional ethics and standards for military interpreting that square with the profession of military interpreting and not some other sector of interpreting.

      I think the recent trend to call it “conflict zone” interpreting is a misnomer because that term lumps in humanitarian interpreting (really a subset of community interpreting) with military interpreting (quite a different profession).

  • Bernardo de Sá-Nogueira says:

    There is a lot of information about interpreters in Portuguese 16th-century sources. Being a conference interpreter and a trained historian, it is a subject-matter that has long fascinated me. We cannot judge 16th century interpreters by our ethical, let alone professional, standards.

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