October 12 is usually an important date in our calendars, as it is celebrated as the National Day of Spain, which commemorates Hispanicity, the discovery of America with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Antillean island of Guanahani (San Salvador).
Beyond the considerations that can be made about an event that is well known to all, the Columbian discovery was also a very relevant episode in the history of translation. Thanks to the work of interpreters, first, and translators, later, communication between Europeans and the indigenous peoples in the New World became possible. The Hispanic presence in the two great pre-Columbian civilizations of America, the Aztec and the Inca, would not have been able to unite so quickly had it not been for the action of the interpreters who took part in the process. In fact, Columbus died without knowing that he had reached a new continent due to the lack of specialized interpreters in the early years of Spanish incursions in America.
Hispanicity and civilizations
The discovery of America (1492) was an encounter between very different civilizations in which language was of crucial importance, as it was the characteristic instrument of human communication. Despite its significant importance, very little has been said about this linguistic episode, so we have decided to dedicate this small space to find out a little more about this issue.
Although it is true that, during the first encounters, communication with the ‘natives’ –or American Indians– was done through signs, an important dilemma soon arose: either the Indians would learn Spanish, or the colonizers would learn the aboriginal languages. At first, during the so-called ‘Antillean stage’ of the conquest, the Spanish opted for ‘Hispanicization’: the strategy of the Spaniards was to capture indigenous people so that they could learn Spanish and then perform the role of interpreters. Of these first interpreters, we would like to highlight two figures.
Diego Colón was an indigenous man captured on the island of Guanahani during the first voyage of Admiral Christopher Columbus, who took him to Spain and baptized him with the same name he had given to his firstborn son. It is believed that his language of origin was Taino and that he learned Spanish on the ships and during his stay in Spain (due to linguistic and cultural indoctrination in Columbus’ environment).
On the other hand, the case of Malinche or Doña Marina, one of the twenty women given by the Indians of Tabasco as a gift to the Spaniards after their victory, is also paradigmatic. At first, Malinche translated from Nahuatl to Mayan, and the friar Gerónimo de Aguiar, from Mayan to Spanish, although Malinche eventually learned Spanish as well, becoming well known and an iconic figure as a symbol, not only of interpretation, but of cultural miscegenation. Malinche went on to have offspring with Hernán Cortés and would end up exerting an enormous influence on him; their son, Martín, is considered one of the first known mestizos.
Hispanicity and indigenous languages
The Hispanicization of the Antilles was very rapid, but the extinction of the native population was also very rapid. This made the missionaries –and the Crown– think of the imperative need for the friars to learn the languages of the natives and preach in them, thus separating them from the conquerors. Thus, already in the time of Emperor Charles V, many of the religious who traveled as missionaries to America became interpreters and translators.
The work of translators in the New World was prompted by the mandate to instruct the Native Americans in the Catholic faith through their own languages. This led to the missionaries having to study them and to prepare grammars and dictionaries.
The immense and methodical translation work
An immense and methodical work of translation was carried out, especially with the main indigenous languages, Nahuatl, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, etc. The religious members translated fragments of the Holy Scriptures, missals, hagiographies, sermons and even popular Spanish songs. On the other hand, the translation of indigenous languages into Spanish was rare as it was feared that this would lead to the perpetuation of their pagan beliefs. However, the little that has come down to us from pre-Columbian literature is due to the work of the missionaries, who made a great effort to integrate themselves into the culture of the indigenous peoples.
The interpreters were basically trained through an early version of the total immersion method. That is, by having the Native Americans live in the same environment as the Spaniards (preferably in Spain) or by having the Spaniards, in isolation, live with the natives, as in the case of the missionaries.
At the end of the conquest and the dawn of colonization, the training of translators and interpreters became academic. In the 16th century, missionaries created bilingual teaching institutes such as those of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, San Juan de Letran and Santa Maria de Todos los Santos, in Mexico. And even chairs of Quechua and Nahuatl were created in the universities of Lima and Mexico City, respectively.
The interpreters’ work and Hispanicity
The process of colonization of the Americas revealed an enormously rich cultural panorama, in which linguistic diversity was an essential feature. The work of these interpreters and translators is the foundation on which the cultural identities of contemporary Latin American nations are based. Therefore, this episode of multilingual coexistence can be considered as one of the most important milestones of oral and written translation in our Western culture
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Carlos Sánchez Luis