The Millions

The Harrowing Translations of Valeria Luiselli

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, , 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.

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