Art and Anger pp 187-203 | Cite as

Translation and Identity

  • Ilan Stavans


Translation, its delicious traps, its labyrinthine losses, was at the birth of the Americas, and I am often struck by the fact that to this day, the role language played during their conquest is often minimized, if not simply overlooked. There’s little doubt that without the “interpreters”, as Hernán Cortés referred to them, an enterprise of such magnitude would have been utterly impossible. Although la conquista was a military endeavor encompassing social, political, and historical consequences, it was also, and primarily, a verbal occupation, an unbalanced polyglot encounter. More than a hundred different dialects spoken from the Yucatán peninsula to modern-day California were reduced to silence, and Spanish became the ubiquitous vehicle of communication, the language of business, government, and credo. Through persistence and persuasion, Cortés and Pizarro, to name only the most representative warriors, took control of the powerful Aztec and Inca empires. Cortés, for one, was astute enough to convince their unprepared, naive monarchs, Moctezuma II and Cuauthémoc, that he indeed was Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent, a bearded god the Aztec calendar had been prophesying as a triumphant sign for the coming of a new age. But to make themselves understood, he and his Spanish knights were constantly on the lookout for a very special type of soldier: the translator, capable of using words as weapons, reading not only the enemy’s messages but its mind as well; someone who, in modern terms, would be not only perfectly multilingual but, more important, a cultural analyst able to explain one culture, one Weltanschauung to another.


Collective Identity Yucatan Peninsula Magical Realism Ginal Importance Native Dialect 
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© Ilan Stavans 1996

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  • Ilan Stavans

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