Untying the Tongue: The Elusive Art of Interpreting

Edited by Rebecca Starford


[…] La Malinche’s is a remarkable story, not least because, in tracing the contradictions of her image in the Mexican consciousness, we can learn something of the ambivalent space that interpreters must inhabit. We can also learn how the role of interpreter has at times existed in the one person alongside those of negotiator, adviser, confidante and advocate, contributing to people’s readiness to confuse and conjoin these functions.

According to sixteenth-century soldier and chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Malinche was a noble firstborn who grew up speaking Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, until her father died, her mother remarried and the stepchild Malinche was sold as a slave to the Mayans, at which time she learned their language as well. Enter the Spaniards. Malinche was among twenty women given as slaves to Hernán Cortés by the Tabascan people and, because of her language abilities (it is not insignificant, I think, that as a child she was given the name ‘Tenepal’, meaning ‘one who speaks much and with liveliness’), she became Cortés’ interpreter. Thus, thanks to the very circumstance that had caused her to go from princess to slave, through a second twist of fate in her short life, she – a slave and a woman who occupied the space in which three classist and patriarchal societies intersected – became one of the most important figures of her time and place. She was no less than, in the words of scholar Zunilda Gertel, both the creator and disseminator of the discourse of Mexico’s conquest.

Malinche has become a symbol of Mexico, which sounds unambiguous and straightforward enough, but her figure is anything but: she is the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim and the founding figure of Mexico all at once. She is seen as treacherous because she assisted the invaders; as a victim because of her status as slave (and, I suspect, because such an understanding is easier than acknowledging agency in a woman); and as the mother of post-conquest Mexico because she gave birth to Cortés’ son, one of the first American children of both indigenous and foreign ancestry. Hers is a complex, contradictory role – always the best kind, I think, because it reminds us that nothing is ever simple, no matter how free from complications it might at first appear.

You can read the rest by purchasing the issue (or online access) at Kill Your Darlings. You can also listen to the recording by ‘First Person’ on ABC Radio National: 

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