When on November 8, 1519 Hernán Cortés and the Spaniards met the Emperor of the Aztecs Motēuczōma Xōcoyōtzin on the road to Tenochtitlan all eyes were focused on the exchange between the representatives of these two great Empires. The Conquest of the Aztecs and Mexico was made easier for the Spaniards due to the fact that Motēuczōma and his advisors believed Cortés to be either an emissary of the God Quetzalcoatl or Quetzalcoatl himself. The path was laid open for the expansion of the Spanish Empire.
However, an interesting chapter in this history is the part played by La Malinche, the Nahua interpreter, advisor of and later mistress to Hernán Cortés. Some attribute much to La Malinche claiming that without her linguistic help and cultural advice, the conquest of Mexico would have been rendered impossible. Most of the Spaniards referred to her as ‘the Great Lady’, the Doña Marina, and truly believed that she was the main reason for their success.
The Nahuas called her Malintzin which is all the more surprising as this is the name by which they also referred to Cortés. It seems that to them she was one in the same as Cortés. Malintzin was the name given to both Hernán Cortés and the Doña Marina. She was a woman who had a foot in both cultures and she even mothered Hernán Cortés’ son and in doing so became mother of one of the first Mestizos in history.
Most translators have heard of the traduttore-traditore distinction, that between translator and traitor, and La Malinche is evidence of this. For the Spaniards, the Doña Marina was nothing less than a godsend, however, to this day she is regarded as a traitor by the majority of Mexicans. In fact, for modern-day Mexicans, the term malinchismo refers to those who betray their country and their race.
Are translators just ‘doing their jobs’ or is there evidence to say that sometimes ‘doing your job’ is an act of cultural treachery? Was La Malinche, Doña Marina, Malintzin a traitor to her culture and people or was she just simply putting her skills to good use? Are there situations where we as translators should say less rather than more? Be concise rather than elaborate?