From Past to Present: Women Interpreters Continue to Lead the Way

Group of seven women interpreters laughing and smiling against a white wall

We found two inspiring stories about intrepid women interpreters, past and present, who have played important roles in facilitating communication between people and cultures.

Let’s explore part of their journeys.

La Malinche, Nahuatl and Yucatec Maya interpreter

The history of the conquest of Mexico cannot be told without including the role of Doña Marina, a Nahua woman who became Hernán Cortés’ interpreter. Doña Marina, today mostly referred to as Malinche, was born around 1500 in a small city near the Aztec Empire. Some records indicate that she came from a noble family; however, at an early age, Malinche was sold into slavery. She was one of the many slaves offered to Cortés when he reached the Gulf of Mexico from Spain.

Malinche spoke her native Nahuatl as well as Yucatec Maya. Her skills as a multilingual distinguished her right away as she became an interpreter for Cortés. She initially worked with another one of Cortés’ interpreters, Jerónimo de Aguilar, who spoke Spanish and Yucatec Maya. Together they relay interpreted Nahuatl to Spanish for Cortés as he encountered indigenous communities during the conquest.

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Over the years, Malinche eventually learned some Spanish as well and became Cortés’ main conduit to the Nahua communities.

Malinche served Cortés as an interpreter from 1519 to 1526 and endured difficult times. She witnessed countless deaths of indigenous people and endured grueling marches across Mexico. But Malinche also stood out as a leader and cultural mediator, helping form alliances between the Spaniards and local peoples.

She was always at Cortés’ side, whether to help navigate dangerous terrain, communicate with indigenous allies or enemies, or order food for the Spanish army. In a letter, Cortés once described Malinche as “la lengua … que es una India de esta tierra,” which translates to “the tongue … who is an Indian woman of this land.”

To this day, Malinche is seen as a conflicted historical figure. Some accounts portray her as a traitor to her country, while others site her story as one of strength and survival. Regardless of the perspective, Malinche influenced a major historical event. She was able to facilitate communication and use diplomacy between two cultures, all while under difficult circumstances and adversity.

Barbara Ng’Ongolo, Swahili interpreter

Interpreters are drawn into the profession for various reasons. Many seek to become professional interpreters, but for others interpreting found them. Swahili interpreter Barbara Ng’Ongolo never set out to be a professional interpreter. “I believe interpreting chose me. I didn’t choose it,” said Ng’Ongolo, who is based in Connecticut but originally from Tanzania.

Over the past couple of decades, unrest in the Congo and a rise of Congolese refugees in the US created a desperate need for Swahili interpreters. This is how Ng’Ongolo’s interpreting journey began. Ng’Ongolo recognized what was happening with refugees, and one day saw an advertisement for Swahili interpreters. “Clicking one of those advertisements changed my life forever. This is how I found myself in hospitals, courthouses, schools, and even prisons.”

In 2013, over 10,000 Congolese refugees were in the US because of violence and turmoil in the African nation.

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“In 2015, the American government was resettling thousands of Congolese refugees in the US. Although Congo has the potential to be one of the richest countries in the world with its vast resources, parties and rebels are taking and profiting from the resources,” explained Ng’Ongolo.

She has handled very difficult situations as an interpreter. But Ng’Ongolo recognized the need for dedicated interpreters with cultural sensitivity who can help LEP individuals communicate and navigate a new country.

“Interpreting for refugees and immigrants changed my life forever,” said Ng’Ongolo.

Whether seeking out the profession or being drawn to it by other circumstances, skilled women interpreters have helped break barriers between individuals and cultures, in the past and the present.

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