PSN Reportback: Lost in Translation? Oral History Across Languages

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015


  • Adriana Lopez

  • Allison Corbett

  • Angélica De Jesús

  • Fernanda Espinosa

  • William Posadas

  • Zoë West


  • Patricia Vazquez Gomez

  • Sarah K. Loose

The notion of “language justice” recognizes that language is power. Language can be both a tool of domination and oppression as well as a powerful means for facilitating inclusive democracy and cross-community movement building and learning. Interviewing and sharing oral histories across languages presents unique opportunities and challenges. In this chat, we’ll explore participants’ experiences, questions and strategies around navigating the technical and ethical issues that arise in doing oral history in bilingual and multilingual environments. Together, we’ll consider what it might look like to bring a language justice perspective to oral history practice.


Opening Intros: What is your experience working at the intersections of oral history and social justice and within multilingual environments? And what do you understand by or think about when you hear the term “language justice”?


  • studied anthropology in Mexico; worked in indigenous communities in Puebla, doing oral history interviews and talking to young people about the importance of language in a context where indigenous languages were being lost, along with the cultural history, legends, etc.

  • one question they explored was around what language people dream in (often the language(s) we dream in is where real self emerges)

  • moved to Portland, OR and has been working in a school setting, supporting students and their families (many of them English Language Learners) in understanding the school system

  • also working with Sarah on “Amamantar y Migrar” - doing interviews in Spanish exploring the connections between infant feeding practices and migration

  • part of language justice is figuring out how we, as interpreters/translators, make sure that the individual’s unique voice is communicated (versus our own voices/perspectives)?


  • trained as an archeologist

  • now doing a lot of work with Native communities in California, has been in spaces where language revitalization and preservation has been actively discussed and strategied. Does work in LA with TQPOC in marginalized, largely undocumented immigrant/youth communities, often in bilingual/multilingual spaces

  • challenge: how to be both inclusive and broadening work to include/engage other communities, while also retaining the ability for people to fully express themselves in the language(s) they choose?


  • I work with indigenous youth around culture, health, and language preservation through the Indigenous Youth Empowerment Program (IYEP) and Native American Youth Association (NAYA)

  • has done transcriptions of interviews for a university

  • originally from Richmond, VA in the South

  • also done community interpretation work with SONG (Southerners on New Ground)


  • living in Brooklyn, has done oral history interviews for PhD at a workers’ center that organizes food workers (largely from Latin America) and operates in a largely bilingual (English-Spanish) environment; most interviews done in Spanish, though some in English (all without interpreter)

  • also done oral history interviews in SE Asia with people who lived under the military regime in Burma (which is a country with many different ethnic groups and many different languages), for publication in VOW book, Nowhere to Be Home

  • now that restrictions have eased somewhat, the book is being translated into and published in Burmese for distribution in Burma. Spoke about tackling the issue of re-translation in reference to the book.

  • thinking about language justice, and having experienced how transformative multilingual spaces with simultaneous interpretation can be in an organizing context, by building connection and overcoming resource challenges, brings up the question of how we can also use oral history in multilingual spaces to advance social justice?


  • currently in the Oral History Masters (OHMA) program at Columbia University

  • has worked as an interpreter and is part of several multilingual collectives

  • language justice = creating spaces for people to be part of the conversation, in whatever language they prefer


  • also did the OHMA program

  • oral history research in Spanish exploring places of memory in Argentina

  • now working as a professional interpreter in a hospital as well as on a variety of projects, including an oral history project with a bilingual bookstore, and is part of the collective that runs the bookstore. Trying to build ways for people to become more bilingual.

  • one issue is the difference between “language justice” versus “language access,” which is the term most often used in the hospital setting. “justice” = recognizing and giving space to everyone to communicate in way they feel they can best express themselves and being respectful of what can be gained by that (especially for folks coming from dominant language/culture) vs. “access,” which is often more about simply “tolerating” these differences

What do we mean by “Language Justice”?

  • recognition of everyone’s right to communicate in the language they are most comfortable with

  • intentional work of undoing the hierarchy of language (recognizing that this can be very contextual - though here in the US, the hierarchy most often means that English is the dominant language)

  • need to acknowledge that all languages are valuable and bring with them culture

  • while there are some specific skills re: language justice and interpreting/translation, language justice is more about a mindset - bringing awareness re: the hierarchy of language and paying attention to how this is playing out; bringing an explicit social justice focus to the work

What kinds of challenges have we encountered in doing interviews across languages and strategies have we employed to address these challenges?


  • a primary challenge has been around limited resources of time and money - in our work for the project re: Burma we didn’t have the funding to be able to hire our own interpreters to travel to every community and in every language in which we were interviewing

  • strategy: working closely with local community members/contacts who could introduce us to other community members and help locate people who might be interested in doing interviews/translating (e.g. connecting with a local community-based organization and having one of the staff people be the interpreter in an interviewer).  

    • advantage: interpreters were members of local community and could help build trust, help people feel comfortable, help signal things that we (not speaking the language and not being from the community) might not be aware of.

    • disadvantage: often these people weren’t formally trained in interpreting and thus might edit things out, speak in third person (e.g. “she said…), etc. We found that we needed to stress to these volunteer interpreters that everything the narrator/interviewee said was important and should be translated


  • strategy: it’s so important to be involved with the community and people that you will interview; to take the time to connect with people, learn about the community, build trust so that people are able to be open and express themselves

  • challenge: in doing interviews and especially in interviewing, our communication and interactions are always passing through so many different filters (of language, culture, perspective, etc.)


  • strategy: in my case, interviewing people who are part of my family/community, I’ve realized just how important it is to leave that time and flexibility for people to explain things, to unpack the way we understand things, to troubleshoot (with the person we are interviewing) issues that come up

What can we do if working with untrained interpreters? What can we do to create a space that truly honors what people are saying?


  • challenge: sometimes interpreters will edit things out from what the person actually said because of shame (e.g. I don’t want others to be offended or know that we think that way/say those things in our culture, etc…).


  • strategy: pre-interview space as key. taking the time to explain to interpreter about the project and the project goals, explaining why oral history is important, why it matters to interpret/hear everything the person says

  • strategy: encouraging interviewer and interviewee to speak directly to each other (versus to interpreter) via eye contact, body language, etc.

  • create a pre-interview space where there is time to speak with the interpreter about why the interview is being done and the importance of what people are saying and how they are saying it

Is it necessary for the interviewer (or interpreter) to be not only bilingual, but bicultural?


  • there are advantages and disadvantages to being an “outsider” - sometimes it can actually be helpful not to be so connected to or part of the community to which the person you are interviewing belongs - some people may feel more comfortable with a stranger/someone not part of the culture because there may be less fear of being judged or fear of saying things that will “bring shame” to the culture. Being an outsider encourages asking why and how questions about things that actually don’t know or understand can offer narrator an opportunity to share/explain things that might otherwise be assumed. But of course it also means you might miss things to ask, misunderstand context, lose elements of meaning.

Often we are doing oral history because we believe in the importance/power of listening to, hearing and sharing our stories/histories across communities. What are some challenges we’ve encountered and general guidelines/things to keep in mind when preparing/translating oral history interviews to share with audiences who don’t speak/understand the language in which the interview was originally conducted?


  • this is a question not only of translation, but of representation - of how people are represented in a language that is not the one that they originally used


  • strategy: using multiple media formats (e.g. a mix of video/audio/text) I’ve recorded my bio via video and captioned it in different languages to share.

  • also found that offering the skill/tools of interpretation/translation up front is really helpful and encourages people to move beyond this idea of “tolerance” to seeing cross-language communication as possible & important


  • strategy: to me, this is where the importance of being bilingual (or working with people who are) really comes up. we need to make sure to check back with people (narrators) to make sure we are really understanding what they are trying to communicate and that it is being represented accurately and appropriately - of having narrators hear back in their own voices what they said and then working together to make decisions around representation - also recognizing how things will be understood through different cultural lenses


  • strategy: need to be incredibly humble about what I know and don’t know. for example, as someone from the DF whose first language is Spanish, but interpreting for someone from Oaxaca, we may be both speaking Spanish, but I can’t assume I always know/understand the meaning of what they are saying. there are still many cultural difference within languages.

  • while most people who are bicultural are also bilingual, it’s important to remember that bilingual is not the same as bicultural


  • there are important parallels between and things that we can learn from the two disciplines/methodologies of oral history and interpretation. for example, this practice in oral history of going back to the narrator and having them revise the transcript, and making sure that we understand the broader context of what is being shared in an interview -- these are the same kinds of things that we do as interpreters who bring a language justice perspective.

  • it can feel lonely to be doing multilingual oral history work, especially in an academic setting (esp. where most people are operating in largely monolingual environment)

  • question: we need to think not only about the hierarchy of languages but also the hierarchy of audiences. when is it worth the time/effort to interpret/translate in order to share with broader audiences versus. sharing within a community that speaks the language in which the interview was conducted?


  • In the LA-based organizing that I do, we’re mostly working with undocumented immigrant youth under the age of 25, mostly from Latin America, and most of whom speak English and Spanish. there is a fear, as we try to open up the space to include QTPOC from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds, of losing some of the freedom of expression that has been possible in the current bilingual environment. members feel like they will have to give something up.

  • challenge: how to work against those anxieties and create space where people are able to fully express themselves in a multicultural/multilingual environment - especially with limited resources


  • one project that is confronting some of those tensions is the Mobile Homecoming Project by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, interviewing queer black elders across the south


  • Some worker centers and community organizations incorporate the practice of testimony into their meetings, offering people the opportunity, ideally with simultaneous translation, to share their stories and experiences across languages. in this kind of performative, interactive, “live oral history” people are able to find and recognize the similarities and differences in their experiences. powerful organizing methodology/practice, but may require more resources for simultaneous translation.

What’s one idea or question coming out of this conversation that’s really resonating with you or that you’re thinking about right now?


  • the different layers of translation, passing through so many filters of our own prejudices and cultures


  • most of my experience has been really community-based and now I’m transitioning to the provider side of things. ready to have these conversations as I’m making this transition.


  • is interpretation really enough? interpretation does not necessarily = meaningful relationships. how can we begin to understand and honor cultural spaces as sacred spaces?


  • reaffirmation of how challenging these issues are. translation is an art, not a science. it is beautiful to create multilingual spaces

  • with so many layers of hierarchy, it’s important to find a balance - we need to recognize there are significant challenges and risks but we also need to be willing to take risks, make mistakes and learn


  • need to remind ourselves why we do this work and to tackle spaces with hierarchies of language

  • interpretation alone does not = connection