Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published:

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Courtney Handman on her book, Critical Christianity

Interview by Dan Jorgensen

Dan Jorgensen: Critical Christianity is a book filled with ideas – it feels as though there is an argument on nearly every page. If you had to summarize the overall argument for, say, an audience of grad students, what would you say?

Courtney Handman: Overall the book looks at two main issues: how a global phenomenon like Christianity changes the kinds of social groups that people form, and how translation works within that process, using the case of Guhu-Samane experiences of Christianization to demonstrate this. So I argue that Protestant Christianities (especially in the kinds of convert cultures that are common in Papua New Guinea and across the global south) are often practiced as projects of critique, and often critiques of what get called “traditional cultures.” These kinds of critical discourses do not just produce the ideological individualism that is usually associated with Protestantism, but they also produce a very intense focus on the social groups in which Christians live, in particular an intense focus on denominations and denominational schism. Guhu-Samane Christians are extremely engaged in the arguments that have produced a number of local denominational schisms, as much as (or even more than) they are engaged in thinking about the ways that their lives have changed since they stopped being “traditional.”

Translation is an essential part of my argument not only because missionary translations are crucial sites for reifying “traditional culture,” but also because I argue for the importance of looking at translation as a form of circulation and not just as a form of comparison. An incredible amount of work looks at translations by comparing texts, languages, or cultures (and I do some of this as well). Yet what was especially important in Guhu-Samane contexts was not just this comparison, but also the fact that New Testament had circulated through a really specific network of people, institutions, and divine entities. Translation was important, then, because they produced these events of circulation and these events of circulation are often the crucial sites for Guhu-Samane Christians to form new denominations.

Dan Jorgensen: Your book looks closely at the history of the Lutheran Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics and their projects – to a much greater degree, in fact, than is usual in Papua New Guinea (PNG) work. Was this part of your strategy from the inception, or did your approach emerge over the course of your work in PNG?

Courtney Handman: Unsurprisingly, the answer is both yes and no. I went to graduate school wanting to work on Christianity in PNG, which was a relatively novel topic at the time. I also knew that I wanted to look at missionaries as actors who shape the way Christianity circulates locally, but didn’t have much of a sense of which missionaries. On my first trip to PNG I spent time at a Christian Bible College and it just so happened that members of SIL (what used to be called the Summer Institute of Linguistics) were teaching a class on Bible translation to the PNG students. I spent much of the time that I was sitting in on that class thinking about what a dissertation project on Bible translation might look like (and also spent much of that summer feeling very claustrophobic on the fenced-in Bible College campus). Perhaps because of this roundabout start, I was interested in translation from the get go as a process that manages to get texts in circulation. I was not especially interested in looking at the impossibilities of translation – that is something that a number of other anthropologists have already done very well – but instead at the changes that translations help produce regardless of their seeming impossibility. By the time my second short trip to PNG rolled around I was pretty well set on looking at some aspect of SIL’s work in PNG, with the hopes of working in a PNG community that was either in the process of getting a translation or had had one already produced. The Guhu-Samane community was unique for both having had an American Bible translator produce the New Testament and for having local people currently in charge of an Old Testament translation project. (The focus on the Lutherans was much more accidental, and only came about because I worked in a community that had been missionized by them, although they have become the central focus of my current research and I’m enjoying learning more about them.)

Dan Jorgensen: An even more striking feature of your work is the use you make of theological debates in Protestant Christianity. It seems clear that these are not merely sources of information or “data,” and instead play an important role in shaping some of the terms of your argument. Can you say something about how you embarked on this route, and whether it offered you any surprises along the way?

Courtney Handman: One of the most surprising and frustrating things about working on denominationalism is how little has been written about it, and how unremarkable much of what has been written is. Usually, if people talk about denominationalism they do so as proxies for other kinds of social groups. Denominations get reduced to being other names for villages or political factions, and denominational competition is usually just seen as politics by another name. In Guhu-Samane communities, there is some of that: denominations are sometimes regionally specific, and competitions among denominations can look like contests among important men. But there seemed to be more animating the denominational conflicts, and I spent a while casting around for authors who didn’t completely reduce denominations (or other religious groups) to political, economic, or geographical explanations. Richard Niebuhr wrote an important text about denominationalism that gets discussed in a wide range of disciplines. Although he is an American theologian, you can trace a scholarly genealogy from Max Weber to Ernst Troelsch to Niebuhr, so he is still within a recognizable social science orbit.

But to speak more broadly to your question, there are a number of anthropologists working on religion who are engaging to one extent or another with texts written about or within religious traditions. This has a lot to do with the realization that secularism didn’t quite take hold as Weber and others had predicted, yet much of the theoretical apparatus of the social sciences assumes that religion is explainable in – and reducible to – sociological or political or economic terms. So while people across the global south have been taking up global religions, the explanations for this often don’t have much to do with the religions as such. Theological texts can be useful texts to think with and think against, even if one doesn’t use concepts in the texts in ways their authors intended, because they do assume that what people are interested in or thinking about has something to do with ideas and practices in Christianity or Islam, for example.

Dan Jorgensen: An important point that could easily get lost in substantive discussions is your perspective on events, and “event-based sociality.” Where do you think we can (or should) go with this? Can you say a little more about the prospects (and difficulties) this orientation offers for anthropologists in general?

Courtney Handman: One of the most compelling models of social groups for anthropological thinking has been nationalism, where the nationalist group is formed as an imagined unity that reaches back into the past. But social groups aren’t all organized like that, and a focus on events is just one way to make that difference clear. I see the focus on events as coming out of Melanesianist anthropology, where people like Marilyn Strathern or Roy Wagner realized a long time ago that the social groups that make up everyday life in places like Papua New Guinea are themselves outcomes of specific events of opposition or engagement. And just like other anthropologists have taken Melanesianist models of “dividual” personhood and applied them well outside Melanesia, I take this point about event-based sociality to address Protestant denominationalism and questions of linguistic circulation. If groups are organized around events, then what makes them important is their capacity to create hierarchies and differences rather than their capacity to be enduring, stable, identity-producing categories. Denominational oppositions within Protestantism seem to work the same way. Schisms can be analyzed as events of critique, where what is important for Protestants is that the denominational split is the evidence of transformation (or reformation, to use a Protestant term). What my Guhu-Samane interlocutors kept emphasizing in the histories of their experiences of Christianization is that it is the events of critique that are especially important to these histories, even if these critical events produce short-lived denominations.

I make the same point in terms of translation by emphasizing translation as linked events of circulation rather than (or in addition to) analyzing translation as the comparison between two stable languages and cultures. This is largely an extension of the kind of analyses that linguistic anthropologists do under the headings of “entextualization” and “recontextualization,” where the focus is on how people understand the process of de-linking a segment of talk or text from its context and bringing it into a new one. In that sense, the focus on events is well underway within linguistic anthropology!



Colin Halverson “Individualized: an ethnography of translation in a genomics clinic”

I spent about twenty months in a genetics clinic in the urban American Midwest. I shadowed genetic counselors, worked in medical ethics, observed in the laboratories, and attended case conferences and board meetings. I also interned in Patient Education, where writers produce pamphlets on healthcare issues for patients from the general public. It is in one of my chapters that focus on this aspect of my fieldwork that page 99 falls. While Patient Education is more peripheral to my actual dissertation, the argument I develop on this page is in fact central to the monograph as a whole. My primary concern in undertaking the project was to examine how experts in a given field communicate complex information to others who lack the background knowledge to understand the information fully. Geneticists face this problem when talking to patients, just as biologists struggle to explain scientific intricacies to clinicians.

Patient Education acts as a group of specialists who ‘simplify’ complex and jargon-riddled propositions into something they consider ‘readable’ for the ‘average’ patient. Such simplification, however, is not itself a simple process. Patient Education serves as a prime site to unravel the rich local theories of language-in-practice that dominate in the hospital. Page 99 of my dissertation lands in the middle of my demonstration of how these employees of the clinic understand specific verbiage’s effects on patients’ emotions and behaviors, and in turn patients’ acquiescence to the demands of prescribed healthcare regimens. Each of my chapters analyzes a mode of translation that occurs in the clinic, examining which (types of) qualities of an object are taken to be essential for the reproduction of ‘identity’ and which (types of) qualities are either unrecognized or considered contingent. Throughout the monograph, I analyze the various gene nomenclatures used by different types of clinicians and scientists, the graphic illustrations of genetic material, and the representations of the individual patient him- or herself, among other things. In the chapter in which page 99 stands, I discuss the debates clinicians and writers have over how successfully to ‘simplify’ expert concepts like cholangiocarcinoma and whole exome sequencing.

Halverson, Colin.  2016. “Individualized: an ethnography of translation in a genomics clinic.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.