Skip to main content
Knowledge Centre on Interpretation

A translation crisis at the borders

For migrants who speak Mayan languages, a grassroots group of interpreters is often their only hope for receiving asylum - The New Yorker

Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam.

Martín, who came to the United States with his parents in 1999, when he was four, was studying to be an engineer when the trickle of Mam speakers migrating to the Oakland area, where he lives, turned into a flood. In 2014, some sixty thousand unaccompanied minors crossed into the United States, in what President Barack Obama called “an actual humanitarian crisis on the border.” A local immigration lawyer told me that at least forty per cent of the children and teen-agers arriving in the Bay Area were Mam. Martín trained with a nonprofit in San Francisco called Asociación Mayab—which offers workshops in translation for indigenous-language speakers—and then began interpreting. There is bottomless demand. “I could do it three, four, five days a week,” Martín, who also works for his father’s construction company, told me. “Every day.”

One morning in early December, Martín was interpreting for a criminal case in Dublin, east of Oakland. A clerk signed him in—“Buenos días,” she greeted him—and then he met the people he’d be translating for, a Mam husband and wife who had been the victims of an attempted home burglary. Through Martín, the couple sought reassurance from the judge that their immigration status wouldn’t be questioned.

Martín accompanied the husband to the witness box, while the wife waited in a nearby room. Watching a skilled simultaneous interpreter is a bit like watching someone speaking in tongues. As soon as the judge starts talking, the interpreter mutters along, not waiting for the sentence to be over before beginning to translate. Martín relayed the witness’s answers in a low, steady voice, in American-accented English.

The testimony turned on the layout of the kitchen. There are twenty-two officially recognized Mayan languages in Guatemala; all of them use relational nouns instead of prepositions—Mam uses “head” to say “on top of”—and they have complex grammatical rules to describe bodies in space. The witness pinched his fingers and dropped them down to imitate his wife putting cash in her purse. He worked his eyebrows. He didn’t look up when the prosecutor asked a question. He was telling his story to Martín, the only person in the room who understood.

When his wife emerged and was asked to spell her name, she looked at the ground and whispered in Mam, “I will not be able to spell my name. I did not go to school to learn how.” But she warmed to Martín, glancing over at him as she became more comfortable.

The prosecutor asked, “What is your primary language?”

“The same language I’m using now,” she said. “I only know a little bit of Spanish.” She does not speak English at all.

During the lunch break, Martín and I went out for burritos. In line, a man in a baseball cap approached. “You are doing a great job in there,” he said. Martín looked at him, confused. The man lifted his cap. “I’m the judge!”

Read more