Listening to—and translating—the voices of asylum seekers

In Alejandra Oliva’s new memoir, she describes how her body becomes an archive of migrants’ stories.

Each of us is a landscape, a geography. We cannot but be changed by what travels through us—the words, the stories, and the people we meet, even briefly, who shift the way we orient ourselves in the world. If we live across languages, we feel the way sounds journey through our bodies and change shapes, softening or expanding as we translate. If we experience trauma, first- or secondhand, its imprint might remain for years or even a lifetime inside us. We are marked by the world and our place in it.

In Rivermouth, a moving new memoir of translation by Alejandra Oliva (a century columnist), she describes how her body becomes an archive, collecting within it the stories she hears in her work as an interpreter for migrants seeking asylum in the United States. As they speak their stories to her in Spanish so that she might document them in English, she carries the weight of what these stories hold. The specific details of why people are forced to flee, their willingness to share them with Oliva, and her ability to render them into English all help to determine whether they will be allowed to remain in the United States in safety.

As she listens, she is torn by the contradictions of bearing witness to suffering and still somehow remaining safe from it. “What do we do with this markedness?” she asks.