12th Annual MATI Conference:
Olga Shostachuk, “Immigration in the Eye of the Beholder”
By Abigail Wright
At the 12th Annual MATI Conference in Merrillville, Indiana on September 26, 2015, Olga Shostachuk treated her audience to “Immigration in the Eye of the Beholder,” lending insight into immigration law and specifically the asylum system and the role interpreters play within it. Shostachuk, a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at Kent State University, is an active translator and interpreter working in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, specializing in legal and medical translation and interpreting. She also teaches translation and Russian.
Shostachuk began her presentation with an overview of the complexities surrounding immigration law. She also discussed the immigration court system. With 260 judges, 58 courts, and a plethora of acronyms to remember, it creates a challenge for translators and interpreters. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) of the Department of Justice (DOJ), for example, includes the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge (OCIJ), the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and the Office of the Chief Immigration Hearing Officer (OCAHO). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) includes Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The CBP and ICE function as law enforcement agencies, while USCIS handles queries from immigrants and immigration benefits. These terms and many more are included in an immigration law glossary Shostachuk provided as a handout, a resource of great value, especially to those seeking to enter the field.
Shostachuk went on to give an overview of the asylum system and the ways in which it can be abused. She stressed the fact that fabricated asylum stories are often tighter than true ones, which can be muddled by trauma and its aftereffects. Further, working as an interpreter for asylum seekers requires a strong stomach, as it involves retelling horrific stories and abuse. Applicants’ physiological and emotional states may be compromised, and so might the independence and invisibility of the interpreter. Additionally, interpreters must be prepared for all measure of seeming non-sequiturs, as what initially sounds like a rambling tangent may turn out to be critical to the applicant’s claim. Recognizing that showing can be more effective than telling, Shostachuk enlisted three volunteers from the audience to demonstrate the pitfalls of interpreting for an asylum seeker.
Shostachuk’s demonstration took the form of role-play, with volunteers playing the parts of an asylum applicant, a consecutive interpreter, and an immigration officer. The volunteers read from a script, in which the applicant described how a man she had thought was a friend had turned around and done something horrible, before suddenly saying, in answer to the officer’s question about what happened that night, that she had always liked bananas, that the man used to bring her a banana to class every day. In the first version of the script, the interpreter interrupts and interprets this right away, rather than waiting to see if the connection between bananas and that horrible night would be revealed. This, Shostachuk explained, could be dangerous for both the applicant and the interpreter: to the officer’s ears, the applicant may seem to be talking nonsense, or she may believe the interpreter to be interpreting incorrectly. In another version, the interpreter waits for the applicant to return to the topic at hand before beginning her interpretation, making the connection between bananas and the applicant’s claim clear to the officer, and the importance of the interpreter allowing asylum seekers to tell their stories in their own way clear to the audience.
Overall, Shostachuk gave a thorough demonstration of the challenges immigration court interpreters face, from the broad knowledge base required to navigate the system to the sensitivity and human awareness needed to interpret effectively for asylum seekers. Her fascinating presentation brought the conference to a thoughtful close, leaving attendees with much to consider in future court and legal translation and interpreting endeavors.
Abigail Wright is a second-year student in the Master of Arts in Translation and Interpreting program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specializing in Spanish into English translation. She holds a BA from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and joined MATI in 2015.