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September Author Spotlight: Language, Translation, and Power with Alejandra Oliva

Learn more about the theoretical history of translation as it relates to biblical studies, immigration law, and more below!

Image ID: An image of Alejandra Oliva wearing glasses, a black sweater, and red lipstick is placed on a green background. In the background, red tinted figures climb a grassy hill, with red thread floating behind them.

In her memoir, Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration, Oliva argues for compassionate, careful, and humane treatment of asylum seekers and immigrants in the US. While recounting her experiences as a translator and interpreter in the places which dictate a migrant’s entry into the US-- and immigration processes which uncover old scars and create new ones– Oliva weaves in her family history, and her relationship with the border as she has come to know its force. By using the river, table, and wall as metaphors, she expounds upon the current state of the immigration system and migrant history in the US, exposing the ways in which the system has historically neglected and abused those it is meant to serve.

On Translation

Oliva’s experiences interpreting and translating inherently involve the personal stories of the people she’s worked with. She exacts her storytelling with the knowledge that she, and we, will never really know the lived experience of these individuals, no matter the closeness either of us feel based on her translation (a sense forced by the specific demands of immigration paperwork) or the personal knowledge she comes away from these experiences with. As she illuminates throughout Rivermouth, translation is not an exact science, and doesn’t result in a one-to-one conscription from word-in-ear to written word. By definition, theoretical translation studies deal with this exact phenomenon–

“The aim of theoretical translation studies is to elaborate principles that explain and predict the linguistic, cognitive, cultural and ideological phenomena inherent in the process of transferring a written, oral, or multimodal text from the source language to the target language in a specific sociocultural context.”

Translation has deep roots in biblical studies– when tracing the history of translation in the western world, the Septuagint is generally referred to as the first major translation, involving seventy translators who were each commissioned to translate the Hebrew Bible to Greek. When looking back to western translation’s roots in the ancient Roman period, debates between the validity of sense-for-sense translation and word-for-word translation mark the theoretical discussions of philosophers like Cicero and Horace and theologians like Augustine. Word for word translation, heralded by Augustine, refers to the use of exact words and grammar in the rendering of a text, where sense for sense translation prioritizes the meaning of the text rather than grammar or precise wordage. As history rolled on, translation studies began to emphasize the importance of historical, social, and cultural context when debating theories, with Oliva mentioning philosophers like Levinas and translations’ relationship to biblical studies in Rivermouth. The nature of translation and its theoretical history is something Oliva wrestles with throughout Rivermouth, especially given its weight in the immigration process. The power dynamics in play bend to the language of litigation, and translation barriers systemically keep these dynamics working. According to Oliva, the gaps between language, experience, and sociological context matter, illuminating the areas in which misunderstanding and mistrust have grown in the US.

On Elite Knowledge

In an interview with Electric Literature, Oliva further describes the relationship between translation and biblical studies, linking “heretical” Reformation-era translations of the bible to the formation of elite knowledge…

“In the Reformation, you have all these people trying to translate biblical texts into modern languages, like English, German, Spanish, and French, being treated like heretics because this was supposed to be language that was inaccessible. It was meant for educated people. And this idea, that some things should be reserved for select groups of people, like say US citizenship or being able to understand this country’s immigration system, is still with us. There is so much elite knowledge that is hoarded for select groups of people, even as it shapes people’s daily lives.”

With this quote, Oliva is pointing to one of the most effective and covert methods through which the US maintains power– the language of litigation.

Language, Law, and Power

In a sense, this is what Rivermouth is all about– the ways in which US law uses language as a tool through which power is hoarded and exerted. Language barriers accomplish the same kind of exclusion as does the border, affording the power of knowledge to those inside the country’s metaphoric and literal walls. This is where translators and interpreters like Oliva come in, but as we’ve seen throughout Rivermouth, the nature of translation is fickle. In Rivermouth, we feel the weight of interpretation in Oliva’s descriptions of immigration paperwork and Credible Fear interviews, and in immigration and deportation cases, its weight is no less. This study by Maya P. Barak summarizes how the US court system procedurally quiets and systemically excludes immigrants by drawing on the observations of attorneys. According to Barak, “Attorneys overwhelmingly characterize the court as procedurally unjust, pinpointing how flaws in interpretation, telephonic conferencing, and videoconferencing offer the illusion of due process,” calling for:

  1. Elimination of telephonic and videoconferencing in all but extreme circumstances.

  2. Modernization of telephonic and videoconference technology.

  3. Improvement of interpreter standards and working conditions.

  4. Education of attorneys, judges, and interpreters regarding challenges inherent to courtroom interpretation and technology.

As mentioned by Barak in her study, Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores’s 2017 article Unsettling Race and Language: Toward a Raciolinguistic Perspective defines the ways in which race and language have been co-naturalized, leading to the formation of deficit perspectives of marginalized communities by the US’s white majority and continually recasting colonial viewpoints and value-based distinctions between “Europeaness and non-Europeaness.” In the case of immigration, the US’s hegemonic use of the English language is exemplary of Rosa and Flores’s discussion of language’s role in upholding white supremacy in the US.

Inspirations, Motivations, and Resources

In last year’s selection for Latinx Heritage Month, The Undocumented Americans, Karla Cornejo Villacinvencio told us the stories of migrants with care, attention, and brutal honesty. She let us into the reality of border crossing by recounting the arduous passages of her interviewees, and followed up on their often equally difficult lived realities in the states, exacting care, compassion and attention when telling each individual’s story. Oliva’s Rivermouth is often mentioned in the same breath as Villavincencio’s work, along with Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends– three works which serve as calls to action and calls to care, arguing and pleading for the better treatment of immigrants in the US. As Biden’s new asylum border restrictions make it more difficult for asylum seekers to enter the US, immigration backlogs are reaching higher numbers with each passing month. With these policies in place, it is imperative we listen to the words of writers like Oliva, Villavincencio, and Luiselli, and take them to heart. At Hardcover Hotties, we acknowledge the positive power of storytelling as a catalyst for change. Rivermouth is exemplary of this kind of storytelling– the kind that can mobilize readers for generations.

To support the Midwest Immigration Bond Fund (pays out immigration bonds in IL, IN, WI, and KY) click here.

To support Border Kindness (provide asylum seekers with comprehensive services and care) click here.



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