Doña Marina/La Malinche: A historiographical approach to the interpreter/traitor

Roberto A. Valdeón
Universidad de Oviedo/University of Massachusetts Amherst

This paper provides a historiographical approach to the figure of Doña Marina or La Malinche, the interpreter of Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico, in order to reassess the fictionalization of the character that we often find in Translation Studies. It is argued that this discipline has used her name in an impressionistic way and, therefore, it seems necessary to complement the translation scholar’s approach with that of the historian. The paper will explore the ways in which Doña Marina has been presented by translation scholars. The next section will provide the perspective of historians, focusing on three aspects relevant for Translation Studies: (1) the facts known about her origin, which explain her ability to communicate in two local languages, (2) her role as interpreter during the conquest of Mexico, (3) her alleged participation in the Cholulan massacre as an informant of Cortés. It will conclude with a discussion that aims to highlight the contrast between the use of impressionistic views of historic figures and the more balanced narratives based on factual rather than mythical elements.

Table of contents

Although interpreters have taken part in colonial ventures, as linguistic and cultural intermediaries between the conquerors and the colonized (Roland 1999), few translators can be considered more controversial than Doña Marina/La Malinche, the interpreter that assisted Hernán Cortés during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. She has captured the imagination of writers, historians, ordinary people and, precisely because of her role as a mediator, of translation scholars. And, as with the [ p. 158 ]other groups mentioned, her figure has stirred much controversy. For some she exemplifies the ultimate traitor, for others she is merely a victim of her times. In all cases she was a translator, “a virtuoso of interpretation”, as Rosenwald has recently put it (2008, 46). Of course, there is nothing new about this. Translation scholars merely reflect the contradictions that we encounter elsewhere, perhaps because the historic character has become a useful metaphor that can support most approaches and interpretations, however unsubstantiated or biased they may be.

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