Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture

Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture

Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture

Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture


Though the dynamics of immigrant family life has gained attention from scholars, little is known about the younger generation, often considered "invisible." Translating Childhoods, a unique contribution to the study of immigrant youth, brings children to the forefront by exploring the "work" they perform as language and culture brokers, and the impact of this largely unseen contribution.

Skilled in two vernaculars, children shoulder basic and more complicated verbal exchanges for non-English speaking adults. Readers hear, through children's own words, what it means be "in the middle" or the "keys to communication" that adults otherwise would lack. Drawing from ethnographic data and research in three immigrant communities, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana's study expands the definition of child labor by assessing children's roles as translators as part of a cost equation in an era of global restructuring and considers how sociocultural learning and development is shaped as a result of children's contributions as translators.


For more than a decade, I have been documenting the work that the children of immigrants do as they use their skills in two languages to read, write, listen, speak, and do things for their families. I refer to a practice that has variously been called Natural Translation, family interpreting, language brokering, and para-phrasing–terms I discuss further in chapter 1. Placing phone calls, taking and leaving messages, scheduling appointments, filling out credit card applications, negotiating sales purchases, soliciting social services, and communicating for their parents with teachers, medical personnel, and other authority figures are part of everyday life for the children whom you meet in this book. Twelve-year-old Jessica, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico to Chicago, suggested such work in her description of a typical day in her life:

Inside my house, I translate for my mom on the phone. But most of
the time, I am either watching TV, on the computer, on the phone,
eating and sleeping. That is basically what I do during the day. On the
weekends, we just stay home and clean, after we are done with the
chores, we go out to eat and get some movies to watch. Sometimes we
go visit other people but I don’t translate much with my dad around.
If we are watching TV, and it’s English, my mom asks us what they are
saying so we have to tell her. Sometimes I also translate letters and
bills. When I go to the pharmacy at Walgreen’s, I have to translate for
my mom. Usually the person that works there talks English, so my
mom doesn’t understand.

In this report, Jessica downplayed her work as a family interpreter. She emphasized that most often when she was home she just did “regular stuff” such . . .

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