Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.

This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).

The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.

The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.

When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.

According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.

This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.

In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.

Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Aztec at The Professional Interpreter.