December 18, 2023

Translation and Interpreting Faculty Member Alejandra Oliva Publishes Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration

By Yashita Thota

Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Master's in Translation and Interpreting faculty member Alejandra Oliva is a both beautiful tribute to her rich background, from Appalachian to Spanish roots, and a documentation of her work as a translator for asylum seekers. The book is divided into three sections: first, “CAMINANTE No Hay Camino” which highlights Oliva’s work in Tijuana at the U.S.-Mexico border; second, “Sobremesa'' which describes Oliva’s conversations centered around tables, from her family dinner table to translating conversations between asylum seekers and volunteering lawyers; and third, “El Azote” which centers around legal proceedings regarding deportation and detention centers. Oliva peppers her experiences working in the asylum seeking system with more personal anecdotes about her family. Through this blend of professional and personal, especially as the distinction is often ambiguous, Oliva uses her own narrative as a foundation for the voices she wants to support. The book also is “unapologetically bilingual,” using Spanish especially in the narratives of others. Through this choice, the author not only emphasizes the importance of both languages in this context, but also forces the reader to identify and invest the proper energy to understand the stories fully. Oliva uses these narratives to underline the many gaps and faults within the U.S. immigration system, one which both requires asylum seekers to exhibit perfection but itself is unorganized as none of the many players take true accountability. Oliva explains that as a translator it is her responsibility to help asylum seekers navigate this increasingly messy system by supporting them through the difficult process of perfectly presenting their trauma and need to officials. Through this book, she endeavors to help people understand life between two languages and borders, highlight the voices of the lives lived there, and educate those with formal and informal connections to the system. She shares, “This trauma translation—my weaker, ghost-version of the original trauma I witnessed—I’m hoping it works like a real translation. In the same way translating a text brings it to a new audience, I want my work to bring a reality that was previously invisible and illegible to light. I’m hoping that it builds a bridge to greater understanding, or rather, a bridge across the gaps when you realize that, like me, you understand so very little of anything.”

Front profile of Alejandra Olivia as they stand outside in front of a blurred beige building. They are female presenting with shoulder length chocolate brown hair, brown eyes, and gold, round classes wearing a blackish sweater

Image of Alejandra Olivia

Do you have advice for anyone who might find themselves overwhelmed when working in translation and immigration advocacy?

Yes! I think it is really easy to get overwhelmed when you have both this really big, complex, often purposely unjust system in front of you, but you’re also working with an individual person trying to navigate that system as best they can. Doing language work, particularly, takes up so much brain-processing power that it can be really easy to be overwhelmed linguistically, emotionally, logistically by this work. I think my best advice for people working within these systems is to always center the person they’re advocating for—to focus on their words and their agency and power within these systems, and any ways that you can facilitate doing both. 

What are, in your opinion, key elements of translating in this area?

The key elements of doing this work I think include bringing a trauma-informed approach to your clients and to yourself–it often involves listening to or asking for really difficult stories from your clients, and those can stay with you in a way you may not always realize in the moment. I think also that the lines between translator/interpreter and advocate can get really blurry, and it can feel so tempting to give out advice, to feel like you know the system better than the person you’re working with

Could you share a positive experience that motivates you to keep working in this area?

In addition to doing direct translation and advocacy, I’ve been able to do storytelling work with folks who have been through the whole immigration gauntlet and come out the other side with some kind of legal protection for their presence in the U.S. Listening to people tell their stories, to hear them naming and enumerating the injustices they faced in the hope that the next person to come through the system might not have to go through them, to people who use their brand new sense of security to advocate for those coming after them will never cease to keep me involved in this area. 

What advice would you give to translators who are working in an environment that they feel is not supportive to asylum seekers?

As the translator, it’s not really your job to directly advocate and challenge the system for your client—there’s often fear of retaliation or repercussions you might not be able to see, and as a non-attorney, there’s a real risk of getting involved in legal matters. I think the best thing you can do as someone who is helping someone through a hostile system is to just arm them with the most information you can–this can look like Know Your Rights talks, it can look like giving them context around different parts of the process or for different questions you may ask them. The line between advocacy and interpretation/translation gets really messy in this work, and there are so many situations where you’re going to want to speak up or push back, but centering the voice, the needs, and the desires of the client is always going to serve you best. I will say that if you see something in your role as interpreter that feels plainly illegal, discriminatory, hostile, whatever, it’s really important to note that down in as much detail as you can–times, dates, badge numbers, etc. Part of your role in this system is also as a witness, and having a third-party perception on situations and interactions can be a really important tool in gaining legal protections. 

How do you think COVID-19 and a move to more online communication has impacted the asylum seeking process?

COVID-19 was massively, massively disruptive in the asylum-seeking process. I talk about this a little bit in the book—it led to the passage of Title 42, which was a so-called public health policy that essentially closed the border to all asylum seekers. It was passed against the advice and advocacy of public health officials, who correctly said that immigration detention practices were much more responsible for the spread of COVID-19 than asylum seekers crossing the border. The pandemic caused tremendous disruptions across the immigration court process from delaying processing times to closing courts that went far beyond online communication, and I think that’s something that they’re still working on untangling today. 

What is your favorite method of notetaking and why?

I love using paper and pen! I’m very particular about my stationary, and really enjoy the tactile nature of it, as well as the way it forces me to be kind of economical about the kinds of notes I’m taking. Beyond that, for the book I would often come home after a day in the field and would take 30 minutes or an hour to write down the salient points of that day, stories or memories I had, and would often use that time as a moment for processing as well—I think taking notes and journaling in that way can be a good time to sort of take out and examine all the events and memories you didn’t quite have time to process while you were busy working or trying to keep it together in front of clients.


“Translation and immigration advocacy—because for me, one does not exist without the other—are a way of allowing me to read myself in a way that is new and strange, to put myself in a context where suddenly and somehow the fragmentation of growing up in two languages has had a purpose and a beauty beyond itself all along. Most importantly, the braided work of the two allows me to clear out a space, to sweep a path, even though it might be ever so narrow, for someone else to make the same realizations, to carry the same steps that I’ve taken, to take the same realizations that I have even further and in doing so to figure out a new way to allow the language of home and the language of the world to be in conversation with each other, for the walls between the two to come down.”

Related Articles