This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:


September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.


These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.


The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.


Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.


Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.


This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.


Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.

On Thanksgiving Day, we remember those interpreters who changed history.

November 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This is Thanksgiving season in the United States; a time when we celebrate the spirit of solidarity and cooperation between all who lived in our country in the seventeenth century, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, origin, and language. In the past, I have written about the crucial role Squanto played during that first Thanksgiving gathering. Beyond Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), a Patuxent Native-American who learned English, and whose interpreting services were crucial to both: Europeans and Native-Americans, Thanksgiving season reminds us of the importance of collaboration amongst all people, and how this communication is made possible by interpreters; many, individuals who were an essential part of human history.

Language interpreting dates back to Ancient Egypt during the 3rd millennium B.C. The first records of interpreting were in Egyptian low-relief sculptures in a prince’s tomb that referenced to an interpreter supervisor. Interpreters were employed throughout the middle Ages. Monks of many nationalities interpreted in monasteries; preachers of foreign lands interpreted in councils, and some individuals interpreted on business expeditions, military incursions and diplomatic meetings.

During the Age of Discovery, using new and different languages changed the way interpreting was seen. Christopher Columbus in his first voyage noted that his Arabic and Hebrew-speaking interpreters “…were not very helpful in communicating with the Indians…”  After this voyage he decided to recruit some Native Americans and teach them Spanish so they could help him as interpreters on his next expedition. Today, on the same spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s remember some men and women who showcased the importance of our profession:

Sacagawea.  Born during the late part of the 18th century in what is now Idaho, she was a Shoshone chief’s daughter. A rival tribe abducted her when she was 12 and sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. He married her. Because she was bilingual, during their famous expedition, Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and her husband at the Hidatsa-Mandan Settlement on November 2, 1804. It was close to the present-day Bismarck in South Dakota. They recognized the importance of having interpreters accompany the expedition. Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French while Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her linguistic skills proved very useful because they bought horses from the Shoshone chief who turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. The couple traveled with the Corps of Discovery from 1805 to 1806. Sacagawea made the distinction of being the only woman in the corps.  Her legacy lives on as one of the most important interpreters of all time.

Gaspar Antonio Chi.  He was a Yucatan Indian interpreter during the latter part of the 1500s, and he was very influential in the communications held by Spain and the Mayans. Chi understood the Spanish language and was chosen as one of King Charles V of Spain’s interpreters. The king wanted to gather information about the history, geography and culture of the colonies, Chi was of great help to the Mayans. He became famous not only for his linguistic skills but also for personally opining before the king. He would add his own thoughts when responding to the king’s questions.

Gaspar Antonio Chi will be forever remembered as the Mayan people’s principal voice during the Spanish invasion of the peninsula and one of the world’s most famous interpreters. Many of his replies to the questions of King Charles were preserved. They provide important insight to America’s post-colonial era. Chi was a son of a Xiu Mayan noble. His father met a group of Spaniards exploring the Yucatán. Later, Chi was given his Christian name by the Franciscan monks who also taught him Náhuatl, Latin and Spanish. He had a natural skill for languages, playing the organ and singing Spanish cantos.

Estevanico.  Born in North Africa at the dawn of the 16th century, the man known as Estevanico was probably the first Muslim to set foot in North America. Growing up in the lush Oum er Rbia region of Morocco, the black Moor was enslaved. By 1527, he was the property of Castilian nobleman Andres Dorantes, and he was given a Christian name, Estevanico, probably to make his enslavement legal according to the laws of Spain’s Queen Isabella.

Dorantes and Estevanico joined an expedition to explore and conquer from the border of New Spain to Florida with conquistador Panfilo de Narváez. Dorantes was a captain on this expedition, which was bound originally for the Pánuco River on the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico but ended up, due to bad conditions and inept piloting, coming to shore near Tampa Bay. A five-month death march through the swamps ensued, plagued with disease and attacks by natives. After the ships offshore lost sight of the land expedition, Narvaez tried to build rafts to float to Mexico. These proved impossible to keep together, and most of the expedition drowned.

Estevanico and Dorantes were among 80 men who washed up on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. When they went to the mainland to look for New Spain, they were captured by Native Americans and held for six years. After escaping soon after the arrival of another shipwrecked Spaniard, the group spent two years on a trek to Mexico. During this trek, the Spaniards noted Estevanico had a knack for communicating with the native population through hand signals and words. He and his companions dressed as natives, and Estevanico carried two sacred gourds and an engraved copper rattle, which gave him legitimacy as a shaman. He also dressed in feathers, bells, and turquoise he had received as gifts for his healing.

When they finally returned to Mexico, Dorantes sold Estevanico to Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, the first Viceroy of New Spain, who dispatched him to help guide another expedition in search of rumored cities of gold to the north. The expedition was led by the friar Fray Marcos, but it was Estevanico that headed it, flanked by two massive Spanish greyhounds and with feathers and bells on his arms and legs. He was disliked by the friars for his license with women and comfortable communication with the locals, and he soon fell victim to overconfidence. Marching ahead of the expedition, he offended a village of Zuni Pueblos, in what is now New Mexico, by carrying items from an enemy tribe and was imprisoned with his entourage while the Zuni elders debated whether to respect him as a wizard or kill him as a spy. Estevanico was killed by the Zuni, and the rest of the expedition slunk back to Mexico. Some, however, believe he faked his death in order to live freely among the natives, and the Zuni spirit Chakwaina, depicted with a black face or mask, is believed to be based on him.

Sarah Winnemucca.  Born around 1844 to the Paiute tribe in eastern Nevada, Sarah Winnemuca’s real name was Thoc-me-tony, meaning “Shell-flower.” Her grandfather, Truckee, believed in peaceful coexistence with the whites, while Winnemucca herself had misgivings. But she accompanied her mother and grandfather to California, where she worked for white families and picked up English and Spanish, and an understanding of white culture. She and her sister Elma attended a Roman Catholic school until the parents of other students objected to their presence. They were forced to leave, but Sarah continued to develop her linguistic skills.

In 1866, she went with her brother, Natchez, to Fort McDermit, either at the request of the Paiutes to help stop white raiding, or on the orders of the Army to explain Paiute unrest. Winnemucca would become an intermediary between the military and the Paiutes, convincing her father’s band to settle on a reservation and serving as a liaison during the 1878 Bannock War.

She once said: “Is there not good reason for wishing the Army to have care of the Indians, rather than the Indian Commissioner and his men? The Army has no temptation to make money out of them, and the Indians understand law and discipline as the Army has them; but there is no law with agents. The few good ones cannot do good enough to make it worth while to keep up that system. A good agent is sure to lose his place very soon, there are so many bad ones longing for it.”

After the end of the Bannock War, Winnemucca became enraged by mistreatment of Pauite captives and launched a campaign of lectures in San Francisco, Nevada, and the East Coast, even traveling to Washington, DC, to plead with the government to reform the system of corrupt agents, callous missionaries, and failing policy. Despite meeting with Secretary of the Interior Schurz and President Hayes, the government delivered no assistance, and a movement to discredit her emerged despite support from the military, the Unitarians, and some sympathetic officials. She died in 1891, having spent some of the last years of her life working in a school in Nevada, where she taught Paiute children to respect their native traditions while learning the language and culture of the whites. She left behind a legacy as one of the most significant fighters for Native American rights in the 19th century.

Felipillo. Born on the island of Puna off the coast of the Inca Empire, the young man known as Felipillo was captured by the Spanish and employed as an interpreter for the conquest of Peru. This was unfortunate, as he was not fluent in the Quechua language of the Incas nor in Spanish, though he picked up both languages rather impressively with no formal instruction by listening to people speak.

He made frequent mistakes, including botching a description of the Holy Trinity by translating “God is three in one” as “God said ‘three and one is four,’” which is true but rather less profound. What’s worse, the only way he knew how to express the concept was by reference to quipu, Inca knot record-keeping, as there were no Quechua words for Christian concepts like trinity, faith, or holy spirit, or if there were, Felipillo wasn’t likely to pick them up from listening to traders haggling in port markets. He was said to be such a bad interpreter that the Inca Atahualpa was said to have needed to speak slowly and in short sentences to be understood, using the Chinchasuyu dialect, rather than the Cuzco dialect, which Felipillo was less familiar with.

Felipillo is said to have arranged the death of Atahualpa, after falling in love with one woman from his harem, Cuxirimay, whose name meant “very fair skinned and beautiful.” When Atahualpa complained of not being set free by the Spanish even after paying a ransom, and that he should at least be able to eat and drink with his subjects, Felipillo told the Spanish that Atahualpa was planning to escape and join forces with his last remaining general, Ruminavi, at Quito to lead a new campaign against the foreign occupiers. Pizarro, fearful of rebellion, had Atahualpa baptized, garroted, and burned at the stake. Whether Felipillo made off with the fair Cuxirimay is unknown.

Malintzin.  La Malinche (meaning the captain’s woman), known also as MalinalliMalintzin or Doña Marina, is an important figure in the history of Mexico, and she played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who participated in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, Malinche was of noble birth. Malinche is best-known, however, for her role as Cortés’ interpreter. Prior to encountering Malinche, the chief interpreter for the Spanish was a Franciscan friar named Gerónimo de Aguilar, who learnt Mayan whilst he was held captive by the locals. De Aguilar spoke Mayan and Spanish. Malinche spoke Mayan and Náhuatl. The two worked together to translate for Cortés, until Malinche picked up Spanish.

It was Malinche’s abilities as a linguist that allowed the meetings and negotiations to be arranged between Cortés and the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. Additionally, Malinche communicated with the tribes whose territories they had to march through saving the conquistadors from hostile attacks. Alliances with indigenous tribes hostile to the Aztecs were made, thanks to Malinche. She significantly contributed to the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Some say that due to Malinche’s presence as an interpreter at the negotiating table between the Aztecs and the Spanish, more bloodshed was avoided.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I invite you to learn more about these interpreters essential to the encounter of Europe and the Americas, not just for the Thanksgiving episode with Squanto, but for many other interactions throughout the so-called “new world”. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and I invite you to share the story of any other interpreters you may want to add to the list above.

The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.

There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.

There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico.  This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.

Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).

Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.

Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.

Malinalli.

Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).

Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.

As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.

When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.

Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single.  He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.

Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.

Marina and Jerónimo.

It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.

There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate.  These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.

Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself.  As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.

Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire.   This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.

These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.

The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.

Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.

Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”.  Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.

Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.

Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.

Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.

The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing.  Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.

We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.

After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.

Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.

The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.

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.

The First Interpreter in the New World.

August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As interpreters and translators we know that every job we do is very important and some of it will even transcend.  Today I want to focus on the pioneer of our profession in the Americas.  491 years ago, on a day like today: August 13, 1521 the Spaniards finally defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered Tenochtitlan where they founded what we know now as Mexico City.  At first glance, it seems that this incredible feat was accomplished by a handful of conquistadors and a fearful Aztec emperor who considered them gods.

Modern research has discarded that version of history as we now know that it was a more complex succession of events that led to the fall of the most powerful nation west of the Atlantic Ocean.  A big part of the outcome, if not the most important part, was brought about by a native woman of a lower-noble family from the Aztec Empire frontier, now the Mexican State of Veracruz.  Her birth name was Malinalli, the name of one of the 20 days of the Aztec month, but as she grew up, she became known as Malinalli Tenépal. The Náhuatl word Tenépal means “a person who speaks a lot with enthusiasm and fluency.”  Sounds familiar?

When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Tabasco México and defeated the Chontal Mayans, she was among the slave women he received as a present.  The Spaniards noticed right away that Malinalli, or Marina as the conquistadors named her, spoke the local Chontal Maya language and her birth tongue: Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs.  It became very clear that this girl, probably around 19 years of age, was very sharp, very pretty by all accounts, and had a gift for learning foreign languages.  At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting.  It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter.

Malinali and Cortes before Montezuma

Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, or Malintzin, as the natives called her (“Malin” being a Náhuatl mispronunciation of “Marina” and “-tzin” a reverential suffix for “Doña”) interpreted for Cortés in at least three combinations: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya, and there is reason to believe that she also spoke, or later learned other Mayan dialects as she served as interpreter for Cortés in what is now Honduras.  Testimonial and written accounts describe her interpreting consecutively and also doing whisper-interpreting for Cortés during many of the most important meetings with the native lords, including Montezuma, the Aztec emperor.  In fact Malinalli’s role went beyond mere interpreting; she was a cultural broker who helped Cortés to successfully establish alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation.

It is clear that the fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different if there had not been a Doña Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly refers to her as a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

Very few interpreters have had the opportunity to be the “first” to do anything, and despite the fact that many Mexicans consider her a “traitor” for helping the Spaniards, on this anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as interpreters we should remember this pioneer of our profession, salute all the things that she did instinctively right without knowing formal interpretation, and recognize her for her key role in the fusion of two worlds until then apart. She was truly a bridge between two cultures that knew nothing of each other.  I would like to hear your comments about Doña Marina and her role in the history of interpretation.

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