“Translation for the Community”: An interview with Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos – Translate Midwest

“Translation for the Community”: An interview with Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos

Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies, with minors in Translation and Latin American Studies. He began working as a volunteer translator for Freedom House while a student at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, before eventually transferring to UM. Before moving to Michigan with his family in 2017, Emmanuel lived in his hometown of Capilla de Guadalupe, a small town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He details his story of immigration to the United States, a story that goes back generations, in the essay “El Norte,” published on Translating Michigan.

During the summer of 2021, Emmanuel produced a short documentary video called “Translating for Freedom House Detroit,” featuring interviews with fellow students, staff and community members who have worked for and with the organization. This project was supported by the Language Resource Center and the Department of Comparative Literature, to prepare for a series of events in fall 2021 on “Translation for the Community.” In an interview with Elisabeth Fertig, a Phd candidate in Comparative Literature, he talks about making the video and his own experiences of translation and migration. Their interview was conducted via zoom on November 5, 2021, and the conversation has been condensed and edited.

Interviewer: How did you first get involved with Freedom House Detroit? How did you find out about it, and what made you want to take part.

Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos: When I was a student at Henry Ford College, there was this community learning–based course taught by my English Professor, Professor Angela [Hathikhanavala]. Through that English class I was writing about migration—my migration—and she noticed that I had this affinity for migration in general and refugee advocacy, and she thought it would be a good fit. She told me about the [Freedom House] program, and it was very interesting because when I signed up, they only had two roles available. One was just helping out with the kitchen, cooking food and supplies and all that. But it wasn’t, like, a ten-hour commitment, so the only other option was to become a language partner, and it was very ironic to me, because at that time I was also learning English myself and I didn’t really feel qualified to do that, but I did it anyway.

I would meet with asylum seekers who were trying to learn English so they could practice with me, and we were really practicing together. And I think it was during one of those times, when I was teaching one of the asylum seekers to tell the time in English—I remember because I was using a worksheet specifically about that—and one of the Freedom House staff came into the office and asked, “Does any one of you speak Spanish? We have a new family and we need somebody to translate.”

And I said, “You know, yeah, I do.” So it was kind of a coincidence, and I didn’t have experience, but I did it anyway. It was just a very short session and right after that one of the volunteer coordinators came up to me and asked me, “Would you be interested in becoming a translator?” Instead of talking about the qualifications I had, the only thing she was worried about was the emotional responsibility and confidentiality, and she did tell me that it was difficult sometimes, but I thought, you know, I was just going to give it a try. And I’ve been doing that for over two years now, and I still do it. I like it so much that it was through that experience that I decided to pursue a minor in Translation here at the University of Michigan.

I: When you say that you got involved as a Spanish translator, are you talking about live, in-person interpretation.

EOC: I do both. I do interpretation, particularly for the legal team, so whenever they have intake interviews, or they would like to explore the case with the asylum seeker, I interpret all those sessions. I also translate official documents like birth certificates and the declarations, of course, which is this longer story that asylum seekers write with their advocates as part of the application process.

I: How did Freedom House get integrated into the Translate-A-Thon? Is that a historical relationship or were you a part of facilitating that this year.

EOC: It was also a nice coincidence. It happened to be that last semester, [UM Professor Yopie Prins] was the advisor for the [translation] minor temporarily, and, you know, she was genuinely interested in getting to know why [I decided to declare the translation minor]. I told her the story about how I became a translator, and how that’s connected to my interest in international studies, and it was one of those Eureka moments. She told me about the Mellon Sawyer Seminar that she was working on, and told me about the Translate-A-Thon, which was going to take place in the fall. She offered me this possibility of working with her over the summer, and potentially using my own connections with Freedom House to collaborate, so that they could be in the spotlight of the Translate-A-Thon. It just happened naturally, organically, and I’m just so pleased with the result. I think it was such a nice alignment of events.

I: Since you’ve already been doing translation work for Freedom House, what was it like to be doing that work in the Translate-A-Thon context? Was it different? Was there anything surprising about the experience.

EOC: As a [Translate-A-Thon] staff member, I had my name tag and everything, so people [i.e. other volunteer translators] would come up to me to ask questions. I can say that just knowing the culture of the organization was very helpful in answering questions, and typically I know what the expectations are: how I deal with the legal terminology, what kind of audience we’re translating these documents for. Just having that background information, I think, was very helpful in framing those answers, because people would come up with very specific questions—we had such talented volunteers, they would really be paying a lot of attention to all those details. I even had people ask me about volunteering and they wanted to sign up.

I: So to turn our attention to the video that you created about Freedom House, can you talk a little bit about the process of putting this footage together? How did you decide whom to talk to and what were you hoping to capture in these conversations?

EOC: One of the the ideas that Yopie Prins (the Chair of Comparative Literature) and I came up with was that, of course, the Translate-A-Thon has always been about community and helping local nonprofits, but it was those broader conversations related to migration and making those connections that we wanted to show in the video: how the work that Freedom House does relies a lot on stakeholders and includes students, volunteers, professors, and just kind of showcasing those partnerships, because Freedom House has many.

So it got me thinking about how Henry Ford College has those connections with Freedom House, that’s how I got involved, but also that U of M has a very long history of partnering with this organization. To me, just the fact that we have entire courses that revolve around that: using translation for the community and for immigrant communities and refugees, and how that’s also related to social justice… There’s this broader meaning of what translation is beyond just an academic exercise, and I guess that’s what I wanted to show: that translation can be this very meaningful tool for change, and it can really save people’s lives.

That’s exactly what [Freedom House CEO] Deborah Brennan says [in the video], and I think it’s just a very powerful message that people don’t often realize, especially in Michigan. I guess that was also one of my goals: inviting Michigan students—who, you know, they have to take a language, it is a requirement—inviting them to use those skills to benefit the community, which is what we were also trying to do with the Translate-A-Thon.

Watch Emmanuel’s video “Translating for Freedom House Detroit” here

I: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about the process of making this video that you’d like to mention?

EOC: I would just say that, first of all, Yopie gave me so much freedom, and it’s so wonderful when you have that level of trust. I just think it leads to better results, and she just trusted my abilities and my vision and I just feel so honored. It was such a wonderful experience, and it was so much fun, and I didn’t feel like I was working.

People were just so excited—volunteers were so eager to come to Ann Arbor. Kyra [Hauck] was in Paris, she lives in France, and she just came over for, like, a weekend and she used her time in Ann Arbor just to show up at the interview, and I just appreciate that so much. Everybody was so open and willing to participate, including Alfonso [Sintjago], who was the editor and who worked so hard, was so strict about the quality of the product, and I think it really paid off, so I just wanted to acknowledge that.

I: I want to talk a little bit now about the powerful story that you wrote about your family’s history with migration. In the introduction, you mentioned that you learned about this story from interviewing your mother, and I would love to hear a little bit more about that. What was it like to learn about your family’s history in that way? Were there surprises that came up for you in that conversation?

Read Emmanuel’s story here on Translating Michigan

EOC: It’s really interesting because when I tell people about this story, like my professors who have read it, they always ask me, like, “Why didn’t you know this? You just didn’t know that your grandparents lived in the States?” So you have to understand that my hometown is, well, I think it might be one of the areas in the entire country with the highest number of people living abroad. So we all have immigrants in our families, we all have a relative that’s living in the United States, and it’s just so common that I took it for granted, growing up. And I knew I had uncles and aunts living in the US, so I never really thought about it, because it was always, like, this distant part of the family that I just didn’t really feel connected to. And I guess it was kind of the same with my grandparents. I mean, I knew my dad came to the States, like, a few times before getting married, so it was a very common thing. I didn’t find anything surprising.

But everything changed when I had to experience that myself, and then I started thinking about what it really meant—you know, the role of migration in my family, and how what was happening to me was not an isolated case, but it was part of this broader history that goes back generations. So when I was thinking about writing this paper, my professor, Angela, was asking us to interview our relatives. My two migrant grandparents had passed away by the time I wrote the story, so I couldn’t really interview them, so I had to interview my mom. And it was just shocking—everything I found out about was new information. I knew some things: I knew they had been to the States before, but I had never really understood why, and the fact that they were part of this larger immigration program which I actually read about in my international studies classes and history courses. To me, just making that connection of realizing, Wow, actually, I’m not a stranger here. This has been home in a way, it’s been another home for my family for so many years and I have more connections to this country than I thought… There’s a sense of grounding that I take from that. It really makes me feel like I have roots in two countries. I just found it fascinating. It was a discovery, a lot of that, for me.

I: You write about your two grandfathers and their experiences emigrating from Mexico in the ‘40s and ‘60s, respectively, and I’m interested in the way that you write about how questions of literacy and illiteracy played an important role in their different experiences. Can you expand on how your family’s history and your personal experience with literacy and translation specifically have played a role in shaping your current interests and goals?

EOC: When I wrote this story, of course, I wrote it originally in English. So when I told my mom about it and I sent her the link, she got so emotional and she was like, “Oh, this is so beautiful but, like, it’s English, how am I gonna understand it?”

I: So your mom doesn’t read English?

EOC: No, no. And I mean neither does my dad, so I know I still have to do that, I have to translate it into Spanish. My mom now knows what the paper is about, because we had that conversation in Spanish. Actually, in order to write this essay I had to translate the interview I had with my mom from Spanish to English. But also, the story my mom told me, of course, was not very structured—like, why would I do that, right? I’m just having this conversation with my mom—it was very informal, casual. And just taking that and translating it into this essay that also is connected to this other work that we read for class, there’s this multi-layered translation. And I’m going to be honest, when I think about translating it back into Spanish, I realized that a lot of the language I use is very academic, so it’s also this question of, Am I translating it for the website and the people who are going to read it there, Spanish speakers who may have gone to college? But I also want to include my parents in that conversation. I want them to understand it, and feel like I’m giving this back to them in a sense, giving them ownership over it.

All those questions about translating this work also make me reflect on my own experience as a translator and what this means for me professionally and ethically as I move forward. And I think it’s also worth mentioning that my parents didn’t go to college, so I’m a first generation student, and there’s this other theme here: education. My mom doesn’t like to acknowledge it, but she didn’t even finish elementary school. She can barely read and write, and part of the motivation that pushed her to support us so much was coming from her own experience. She wanted to ensure that we had what she didn’t have. It’s so central to the reason why I am here in this country right now that my mom wanted to give us an education. This migration story is about education.

I: As a final question, I want to ask you about the way that you end this story. You maintain a kind of ambivalence about the dreams or the stories that motivated your grandfathers to seek work in the US, and the story ends: “Despite discrimination and xenophobia, these migrants kept believing in the opportunities of the miraculous North, ‘a kinder mistress’ which was both optimistic and hostile. Whether their drive for migration was motivated by stubbornness or survival, their legacies persist to this day.”I’m interested in this tension that you set up, in referring to the US as a destination for immigrants in general and for your grandfathers in particular, this tension between optimism and hostility in the way that you contrast their dreams or their goals with the more complex realities they experienced, which included, as you talk about, discrimination, bad living and working conditions, etc. What made you decide to end the story on that note.

EOC: I guess I, as an immigrant, always experienced this dichotomy. When I talk to other immigrants here, it seems to be this consensus that older generations tend to glamorize migration, and a lot of that comes from lack of awareness. And that’s how it happened to my family, to some extent, because even though there was this painful story that my mom told me about the conditions that my grandfathers experienced, she would still say things like, “Yeah, but I still wanted to bring my children to this country because it has so many opportunities.” It is true, you know, but there are opportunities and there are also new challenges that we wouldn’t have had to experience in Mexico. Because I was also experiencing that at the same time, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t glamorize this American Dream uncritically. There’s so much pain that comes with it. I’ve seen that in my own family with other relatives who have lived in this country longer than I have and have less rights than I do. The reality of the immigration system is just too present to overlook, and somehow portray this vision of the American Dream that does not account for all the injustices that have been committed. Immigration is at the forefront of the political debate for a lot of reasons, and it is so contentious, so I wanted to reflect that in my essay, that it’s still an ongoing conversation.

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