Malinche, by Laura Esquivel, trans Ernesto Mestre-Reed

Another betrayal for Mexico's first heroine
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La Malinche - also known by her Yucatec name Malinalli, her Aztec name of Malintzin and her Spanish name, Marina - is fundamental to Mexico's self-image. She has been imaginatively written about for the past 500 years by historians, novelists and (most recently) feminists. Not for nothing does historia mean both history and story in Spanish.

Creation mythology and revolutionary propaganda alike named La Malinche "mother of the Nation", and a rallying cry against Spanish rule. An Eve born in real time (1502 or 1505), she became the conqueror Cortes' concubine at 16, bearing him a son in 1522: a first branch on the family tree of mestizaje, or mixed indigenous and European blood.

Because she betrayed the Aztec emperor Moctezuma with Cortes, her treachery has given rise to another common expression: malinchismo. This has come to mean selling out, specifically your own cultural inheritance - effectively negating her later appropriation as an anti-Hispanic heroine. A crucial element in this powerful role was La Malinche's ways with words. However little else we know of her life before she was enslaved by the army of conquistadors, she already had a fierce reputation as a linguist. From a variety of Maya languages, she swiftly acquired Nahuatl (as spoken by Aztecs), then Tlascalan (language of their enemies) and Spanish. As a peace negotiator she must have had almost as much control over delicate discussions as the warring factions.

Small wonder, then, that she has been the subject of so many folk-songs and tales; so much anthropological and historical study; and of art from Diego Rivera's murals to Octavio Paz's unsuperseded Labyrinth of Solitude. Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate (4.5 million copies sold), here provides us with the Mexico-lite version. Passion and tragedy, birth pangs and death rattles, cookery and tie-dye recipes, moralising and hyperbole flounder in a mess of fatuous characters and nonsensical dialogue. She has her Malinalli make a final speech to the Spaniards: "The worst of all sicknesses are your cursed mirrors... In the images of your mirrors there are wails and crimes devoured by time."

The translator is given as Ernesto Mestre-Reed - a Cuban novelist and academic - though, oddly, the translation copyright is assigned to Laura Esquivel. Still, whoever agreed the Gringlish (gringo English, definitely a notch below the more customary Spanglish) has done little to betray the quality of the original.

The true betrayal is of that extraordinary phenomenon, the mother of the nation and the nation's first translator, La Malinche. With mass-marketing to push it, Malinche will doubtless sell. Just as well, then, that it is promoted as "a work of fiction", and cannot be regarded as having anything seriously to do with its subject. And if it drives at least some readers to return to Octavio Paz, then it may even come to serve some literary purpose after all.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, Norwich