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What Is Asylum? Translation, Trauma, and Institutional Visibility

Aria Fani, "What Is Asylum? Translation, Trauma, and Institutional Visibility.” In Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism. Edited by Rebecca Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, Routledge, 2020. 

This chapter examines the reliance of asylum as a legal category on a transnational social-scientific vocabulary since its codification into international law in 1951. It makes a case for the use of a vernacular, non-imported lexicon in order to directly speak to the cultural-linguistic register of claimants who are unfamiliar with asylum legal jargon. This chapter draws on my experience as a Spanish-language interpreter and translator for the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC), a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area. I situate the EBSC's establishment within the broader context of theSanctuary Movement in the early 1980s which mobilized human rights advocates in California and Arizona in response to US-supported atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala and in defiance of US asylum practices. I analyze the cases of two Central American asylum-seekers with whom I worked at EBSC to demonstrate the extent to which a transnationally imported legal lexicon fails entirely to connect with their lived trauma. To make a credible and compelling asylum claim is to be made visible within a legal category. In that vein, I argue that the field of translation and interpretation can help bring asylum as a legal category into closer alignment with the cultural-linguistic register of asylum-seekers who come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and many other countries.

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