The Harrowing Translations of Valeria Luiselli

June 22, 2017 | 2 6 min read


Translation, while often misconstrued as neutral, is an inherently political act. It can amplify a voice, especially when it’s rendered into English, which is almost always the dominant language with the wider reach. While I like to point this out as a literary translator myself, the reality settles in when I speak with a novelist who, for the past year and a half, has been working as a legal interpreter.

Valeria Luiselli had never translated before working at an immigration court with Central American children seeking sanctuary in the U.S. There, she would discover that presenting the stories of these children accurately and convincingly to the court in English is their only chance of escape from violence or insecurity at home. But, unlike the literary translator, she found she had limited control over the narratives she was given. Between the children’s words always lurked a heavy silence, a much longer story that wasn’t being told.

Luiselli’s book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, out now from Coffee House Press, is an attempt to record, in English, what didn’t get translated. For while she also writes books in Spanish, she had no trouble deciding which language to write the one distilling her experiences in court. The versions of these children’s stories that do already exist in English, in the media primarily, are incomplete and oversimplified, and the ones packaged for the courts are not much better.

It was in 2014 when she first learned that tens of thousands of children were turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol after arduous, perilous journeys from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other places. This would widely become known as an immigration crisis that to this day continues, where unaccompanied children have been fleeing escalating violence across Central America.  

The numbers are staggering and the circumstances harrowing. To make these journeys, children travel on the backs of trains and cross deserts with limited water supply, where they also run the risk of being kidnapped and murdered. If you are a girl crossing the border from Mexico, there is an 80 percent chance that you will be raped; many take birth control as a precaution. Too many of these children, some as young as two years old, are sent back. Mexican children don’t stand a chance, as they can be deported immediately under U.S. policy if Border Patrol determines they meet certain conditions.

At the time she realized this, Luiselli, who is Mexican, was in the process of applying for her green card after having lived in the U.S. for six years. Her own burdens in navigating the exceedingly confusing and expensive immigration system (which I, too, am familiar with) seemed trivial in comparison to these children’s. She reached out to her lawyer at the time and asked how she could volunteer in court. It was then that she ended up interpreting at an immigration court in New York City, and found she was badly needed: the federal government faced an overwhelming number of children—80,000 between October 2013 and June 2014—and shortened the time they had to find legal representation: 12 months to 21 days. Luiselli’s job was to interview and translate the children’s answers at an initial screening, which were then reviewed by volunteer organizations to determine whether there were viable claims against deportation. If not, no lawyer was assigned and the child was eventually deported.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is at once a deft exposition on the injustices of immigration law, the long, bullying history of U.S.-Central American relations, and the obstacles and politics of translation. The book is structured around the questions she had to ask each child she interviewed. The first, “Why did you come to the U.S.?”, is already too complex—one not even Luiselli can fully answer for herself. The answers—persecution and abuse at home or the hope to reunite with a family member in the U.S.—come in pieces, not neat, linear narratives. Reticent children are often too embarrassed by their circumstances or worried about betraying their family to give complete answers. And no matter how many times Luiselli asks questions, “[t]he children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, no end.” Their stories, she suggests, are partly broken because their lives are.

But the children don’t always know how to report their hardships. Luiselli notes that she must engage in a double translation: in addition to Spanish, she translates the language of children. In an interview with two young sisters, they evade questions, contradict themselves, and pretend to understand when they don’t. “When did you come to the United States?” she asks. “I don’t know,” they say.

And where did you cross the border?
I don’t know.
Texas? Arizona?
Yes! Texas Arizona.

Following this exchange, Luiselli concludes in near defeat, “For children of that age, telling a story…a round and convincing story that successfully inserts them into legal proceedings working up to their defense, is practically impossible.”

The cruel irony is that while these children’s predicaments are clear, they become less so when trying to fit them within the borders of the questions asked. In one of many imaginative attempts to translate the peculiar language of the courts, Luiselli likens the interview process, officially called a “screening,” to a movie projection: the child becomes “a reel of footage,” and the legal system “a screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail.” The translator, then, is nothing more than “an obsolete apparatus used to channel that footage.” The stories become “generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.”

“In court my dilemma is how to not cheat. That is,” she said impishly when we met, “in favor of the kid.” She had to exercise restraint when those two young sisters, for instance, gave insufficient answers, saying, as a child is told to, that they never got into trouble at home, were never punished, and only played. “What I needed to hear, though I didn’t want to hear it, was that they had been doing hard labor…that they were being exploited, abused,” Luiselli writes, visibly irked and ashamed that these are the realities that would grant the children asylum or special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status.

As a legal interpreter, she feels “powerless,” “hands and feet tied.” She cannot control the words that flow from the children’s mouths, and she has to listen even when it’s too painful. Her job is exhausting and emotionally demanding. Particularly, she struggles to provide an answer to her curious daughter whose demand, “Tell me how it ends, mamma,” becomes a common refrain throughout the book, because most of the children slip from her reach after the screening.

There is one notable exception, however: the first child Luiselli ever interviewed, 16-year-old Manu, from Honduras, who Luiselli grows fond of and who we follow sporadically. His story enlightens the geopolitical context for these mass migrations; through him we learn more about MS-13 and Barrio 18, two gangs that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and that despite the U.S. administration’s effort to deport the members involved, have only grown in numbers across the country. Manu, exceptionally, brought with him across the border a physical piece of evidence that would earn him the attention of some of the finest pro-bono lawyers in the city: the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras complaining of MS-13 members who lurked outside his high school gates. But when Manu arrives in Long Island, he finds “Hempstead is a shithole full of pandilleros, just like Tegucigalpa.” In other words, his problems followed him. Even though “the media,” as Luiselli remarks with typical sense of humor, “wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal!”

Through the media we’ve learned of these stories but also failed to understand them. Luiselli, in seeking “to rethink the very language surrounding the problem,” tries to translate the masked language of news sources, including The New York Times, pointing out their propensity to refer to children as “illegal immigrants” rather than “refugees;” of problems to be rid of rather than confronted.

She concludes that “the only thing to do is tell [these stories] over and over again…in many different words,” but she wrote this before Donald Trump was elected president. Circulating these stories, particularly in English-language media, could have adverse consequences. With the so-called “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S., flagged by the current administration, Luiselli wonders what more attention would mean for these Central American kids who have gone relatively unnoticed. “Will this government target them more if they become more visible?” she asked me.

The last impression Luiselli leaves us with is unexpected: three photographs where Manu poses for the camera, hanging by his arms from telephone wires, “practicing the art of flight.” In the image, his body is completely dark and silhouetted, preserving his anonymity, as lawyers had advised—Manu is not his real name, even though he wanted Luiselli to use it. He personally wouldn’t mind being seen; he might prefer it. But the pictures we’re offered of these children, just like their translated words, struggle to gain focus.

is a New York-based writer and translator from Portuguese. Her writing and translations have appeared in, among other places, Guernica, Stonecutter Journal, n+1, Hyperallergic, The Nation's "Noted," Ugly Duckling Presse’s 6x6 Journal, Asymptote Journal, and Words Without Borders, where she was formerly the book reviews editor. She is currently the associate editor at Hyperallergic.