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  • Translation, Invention, Resistance: Rewriting the Conquest in Carlos Fuentes’s “the two Shores”

Instead of being defined merely as a crossing over in order to grasp something, translation can also provide a place or forum for the practice of a crossing over which disseminates and escapes. Instead of translations fixing the same meaning, translations can also allow further room for play, extend boundaries, and open up new avenues for further difference.

—Edwin Gentzler, Contemporary Translation Theories

I translated as I pleased. . . . I added, inventing on my own and mocking Cortés . . . I translated, I betrayed, I invented. . . . But since things happened as I’d said, my false words becoming reality, wasn’t I right to translate the commander backwards and tell the truth with my lies to the Aztecs?

—Carlos Fuentes, “The Two Shores”

At a crucial moment in “The Two Shores” (1994), Carlos Fuentes’s novella about the conquest of Mexico, Jerónimo Aguilar finds himself [End Page 405] having to translate for Cortés in his discussions with the defeated Emperor, Cuauhtemoc. The novella, narrated by Aguilar, is based on the eyewitness account of the conquest written in 1555 by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In the Díaz narrative, Cuauhtemoc weeps in shame before Cortés for having been unable to prevent the defeat of his people, and he invites Cortés to slay him with his own dagger. Instead, as Díaz writes, Cortés “answered him very kindly through our interpreters that he admired him greatly for having had the bravery to defend his city, and did not blame him at all. On the contrary, he thought rather well than ill of him for having done so. . . . Let his spirit and the spirit of his captains be at rest. For he should rule over Mexico and his provinces as before” (403–04). 1 In Fuentes’s version of this scene, however, Aguilar purposefully mistranslates Cortés, recalling that he “didn’t communicate to the conquered prince what Cortés really said, but put into the mouth of our leader a threat: ‘You will be my prisoner; today I will torture you by burning your feet and those of your comrades until you confess where the rest of your uncle Montezuma’s treasure is. . . . You’ll never be able to walk again, but you’ll accompany me on future conquests, crippled and weeping, as a symbol of continuity and the source of legitimacy for my enterprise’” (10). Though he mistranslates what Cortés actually said, he truthfully describes to Cuauhtemoc what would happen to him. Cortés’s aides did in fact torture Cuauhtemoc by igniting his feet with oil in order to extract information about where Montezuma’s gold was buried. Though the historian Hugh Thomas gives no evidence that Cuauhtemoc could never walk again, the Emperor was left with a limp and was forced to travel with Cortés on an expedition to Honduras, where he was hanged in 1524 on suspicion of fomenting an insurrection. 2

Throughout “The Two Shores,” Aguilar mistranslates Cortés in an attempt to thwart the conquest of the Aztecs. However, as in the scene with Cuauhtemoc, his mistranslations merely serve to prophesy Cortés’s brutal victory. Mistranslate though he does, Aguilar remains an agent of the conquest. “Were my words perhaps a mere exchange,” he wonders in frustration, “and I nothing more than the intermediary (the translator), the mainspring of a fatal destiny that transformed trick into truth?” (10). The experience with Cuauhtemoc haunts Aguilar in death, troubling his ability to be an objective witness and judge of the conquest. “From my grave,” he writes, “I try to judge things calmly,” [End Page 406] but the “image” of Cuauhtemoc “forces itself on my thoughts again and again” (9). It is not just the brutality of Cortés’s treatment of Cuauhtemoc that troubles Aguilar, but his own inability to come to terms with both the meaning and effect of his attempt to betray Cortés. In telling the story of how he willfully mistranslated Cortés’s words to the Aztec emperor, Aguilar worries that “I reveal myself before posterity as a falsifier, a...

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pp. 405-431
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