Translators are often the forgotten vital intelligence asset in wartime. Their role has developed considerably in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, becoming increasingly important in a globalised world that faces the challenges of terrorism and complex international relations. Today we need their skills more than ever, but the origins of translators in warfare go back further than most people imagine.
The Stone Age
The story of the human species is a story of war and conquest. From the very earliest movement of people from Africa, human beings have made war to establish new territory and gain social dominance. Since that time humans have made use of soldiers and sailors who spoke the language of their enemies, hoping to gain an insight into their opponents’ tactics and the lie of the land (or sea), and in the process gain the advantage in battle.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs
One notable use of native translators in history was during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It began in 1519 when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with Spanish forces. Faced with more than one local language to navigate, the clever Cortés decided to make use of the translation skills of a local woman, Malintzin, to help him make alliances with other groups hostile to the Aztecs. She quickly learned Spanish and translated between this, Chontal Maya, and Náhuatl. Malintzin also taught Cortés about Aztec culture and helped him defeat the Aztec forces. She even warned him of a planned assassination attempt. Eventually she became Cortés’s personal interpreter and mother of his son. Read more