The history of interpreting stretches back millenia. The oldest known depiction of an interpreter was etched inside the tomb of Horemhab at Saqqara, ancient Memphis, just outside Cairo. It dates from about 1330 BCE. The frieze depicts Horemhab facing left and right, conveying the pharaoh’s message to Syrian and Libyan delegations. Horemhab was a commoner who began serving in King Tutankhamun’s court as a royal spokesman, diplomat and envoy; and would ultimately reign as the final pharaoh of Ancient Egypt’s 18th dynasty. Approximately two thousand, eight hundred years later and twelve thousand kilometers away, another interpreter would emerge and in their brief life, bend the arc of history. A young woman born Malinalli to a noble Aztec Nahuatl-speaking family, who would learn a Mayan dialect after being sold to slave traders, then be offered to the Spanish conquistadors, and ultimately be credited by Hernán Cortés as instrumental in the conquest of New Spain, La Malinche.
In 1519, the cazique (chieftain) of Tabasco offered as tribute twenty indian women to Cortés after being defeated by the Spanish. These women were the first to be converted to Christianity. Malintzin became Doña Marina and was given to an officer named Puertocarrero. The conquistadors were joined in their expedition by a Franciscan friar, Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had learned Mayan after an eight-year enslavement. As the conquistadors marched deeper into Mexico, towards Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, Aguilar’s limits were reached. It was then that Doña Marina became La Malinche, the captain’s woman. The Spanish monk and the Aztec slave were able to co-operate as conference interpreters for Cortés.
The three negotiated with various outlying territories, adopting converts and developing alliances with outlying tribes long oppressed by the Aztecs. La Malinche quickly learned Spanish and became the conquistador’s sole interpreter as is frequently depicted in contemporaneous codices. The allied Tlaxcalans even referred to them by the singular name ‘Malintzin’. In 1522, a year after the Spanish took Tenochtitlan gave birth to Cortés son, Don Martín, one of the first known Mestizos. The most comprehensive first-hand account “Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España”, written in 1576 by Bernal Díaz del Castillo refers to the “great lady” Doña Marina reverentially, and that without her help they “would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico”, that she was able to convince the Indians through her formal, rhetorical speech that the Spanish forces could overwhelm them and that their best course of action was to join them. In the “History of Tlaxcala” codex, she is even illustrated independent from the conquistadors, in rich clothing, as though she was the leader of the alliance. According to historians, “the role of the Nahua wife acquired through an alliance would have been to assist her husband achieve his military and diplomatic objectives.” If it holds true that Malinalli had been trained for courtly life, then she would have succeeded beyond measure.
In contemporary Mexican Spanish, to call someone a ‘malinchista’ is to denigrate them as a traitor who denies their culture. This is an unfortunate and unrealistic reading of history. While she may be controversial, La Malinche née Malinalli made the best of her victimized circumstance as a trafficked slave and applied her mind and efforts to bridging a vast and violent gulf between two empires. While she may not have ascended to the level of pharaoh, her contributions to her civilization run parallel to Horemhab’s.