Rivermouth: Translation As Politics
How it's weaponized and reclaimed
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussion of immigration and incarceration.]
When we think about the act of translating, we may recall the ever-present phrase “lost in translation.” The connotation here is that even when we translate a text into a different language, that new passage will not hold the same exact meaning; translation does not always do a text justice. Translation benefits society, such as by enabling intimate conversations or spreading stories and art from around the world. But what about when translation is wielded as a tool for power, the recipient manipulating the meaning behind a passage or verbal statement to uphold ingrained beliefs or political goals? And how does that translation impact not just the original speaker or writer, but everyone who hears or reads these translated words? In Rivermouth, author and translator Alejandra Oliva addresses this and more (Astra House, 2023). “This book is about immigration, but it’s also about reading and rereading—going over passages in your life, poring over someone else’s words until you find your own life irrevocably altered” (Oliva, 274). Translation is not simply about communication; in our modern world, it’s a political weapon, a personal history, and a call to action.
A Mexican-American translator and immigrant justice activist, Oliva has both a personal and professional connection to the border between Texas and Mexico. Growing up, her family would travel back and forth, and after Trump’s election, she began working as a translator for asylum seekers. Within Rivermouth, her experiences lend to a chronicle of not just her own history but a history of asylum and U.S. colonization/imperialism, all through the lens of translating and being translated—particularly with an emphasis on how the States wields translation as a weapon and source of power.
“The power here only moves in one direction,” Oliva writes, “and everything done by asylum seekers, every translation done by them and their allies, serves only the reader: the United States government…These are meant not at all as an expression of the person telling the story and entirely to satisfy the entity processing it” (164). In the asylum process, translation becomes a tool allowing the U.S. to craft narratives that they deem suitable or unacceptable. But “allowing the members of the caravan [a] kind of voice and power before they cross the border violates the idea of migrants as solely a political subject, never acting, always acted upon…acknowledging and magnifying their collective power and agency instead of removing it or ignoring it” (41). Just as the government attempts to mold translation to fit their own interests, hearing translated (and untranslated) stories for what they really are is not only powerful, but political.
Translation deals with both the personal and the impersonal—for those speaking, it’s their story, their amplification, yet after translation the story runs the risk of being co opted, altered, for the listener’s benefit. “You make a personal politics the same way you translate a text, the same way you write a book: You look at the world around you, and there are things that you notice and there are things that you don’t. If you’re lucky, you read the words of other people who have looked out on the world before you, who have caught other things you didn’t, you change your mind, change your actions, start seeing things you [had not noticed] before” (274). Translation challenges us to be better humans, and it’s on all of us to determine whether we will seek the truth in translation or trust those that have only a history of weaponization, a need for power. “This is the way change happens: through the tiny accretion of more and more people who care more and more, and not just about immigration, or language, or stories” (280).
Defend, fight for, and increase immigration rights
“And yet, people keep coming, keep making dangerous journeys, risking separation and death and deportation, and so it falls to us to ask why? What is it like where immigrants are from for them to think that this country is a better alternative?… Through a century and a half of continual diplomatic and military intervention, exploitative U.S.-based multinationals run riot, as do deeply unjust trade deals. We’ve rendered many (most?) of the countries south of our borders dangerous to all but the wealthiest.” (129).
How can we as readers begin to create change in the asylum and immigration system? Outlined below are two organizations working to create change and action items we can take.
Informed Immigrant: Their goal is to provide “all undocumented immigrants with the knowledge and resources they need to feel prepared in our unpredictable political and enforcement environment.” This includes resources on rights, mental health, legal help, employment, and more.
Freedom for Immigrants: “Freedom for Immigrants is devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system.”
“This book is about immigration, but it’s also about reading and rereading—going over passages in your life, poring over someone else’s words until you find your own life irrevocably altered.”
—Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration, p274
Others’ thoughts on Rivermouth
“With uncut rage and breathtaking prose, Oliva edifies, infuriates, and moves readers all at once. This is required reading.” – Publishers Weekly
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If you liked Rivermouth, read…
The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
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