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Female interpreters who shaped history

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From the Age of Discovery to the Age of the Internet, interpreters and translators have played an important role in helping people communicate by overcoming linguistic barriers. For Women’s History Month, we highlight some of the female interpreters and translators who helped shape historical events around the globe.

La Malinche

Early in the 16th century, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast acted as an interpreter and advisor to Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Malinalli Tenépatl, more commonly known as La Malinche, was the daughter of a chief of the Aztec empire and her mother language was Nahuatl (known historically as Aztec). She learnt the Mayan language when she was sold into slavery as a tribute to chiefs in Tabasco following a war between the Mayans and Aztecs.

Cortés conquered Tabasco in 1519 and was given gold, blankets and 20 female slaves. Among them was La Malinche. When Cortés discovered that La Malinche spoke Nahuatl he used her as a Nahuatl-Mayan interpreter. La Malinche and another interpreter, a Spanish castaway who spoke Mayan and Spanish, conducted all communications between the Spanish, Mayan and Aztecs. Later, La Malinche went on to learn Spanish herself.

Sacagawea

Sacagawea played an important role in US history as an interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. She was chosen, along with her husband, to join the expedition in 1804 because of her ability to speak Hidatsa and Shoshone. Sacagawea’s husband, also an interpreter, spoke French and Hidatsa. Through this interpreting and translation chain, communication with the Shoshone was possible.

Sacagawea made the whole journey with a newborn baby strapped to her back. Her presence and the fact that she was treated as equal not only aided negotiations with the Shoshone, but also signalled that Lewis and Clark came in peace.

 Jane Fawcett (formerly Hughes)

Around 8,000 women worked at the central site for British cryptanalysts (Bletchley Park) during the Second World War in a range of roles from code breakers and translators deciphering Axis documents to administrators and index card compliers.

Jane worked as a decoder at Bletchley Park where she received daily Enigma keys. She would type them into a Typex machine and then check to see if the decoded messages were recognisable German. Jane had spent some time in Switzerland where she learned the German language.

On the 25th May 1941, Jane and several other women were briefed on the search for the German battleship, Bismarck. Just a few hours later, she decoded and translated a message referring to the Bismarck that detailed its position and next destination in France. Jane’s language skills meant she could quickly escalate the information. This subsequently led to the sinking of the Bismarck by the Royal Navy, demonstrating the significance and utility of the codebreaker’s work.

Interpreters and translators continue to play a vital role in ensuring clear communication in challenging, multi-cultural environments. From the female interpreters working at the EU who ensure statespeople can communicate effectively and resolve political issues, to the female translators making legal documents accessible to everyone, women are removing language barriers and aiding decisions that write history every day.