Translations of Migration – Current Research and Debates on the Concepts of Migration and Mobility

Translations of Migration – Current Research and Debates on the Concepts of Migration and Mobility

Global Studies Institute / Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, OR
United States
Vom - Bis
27.04.2022 - 28.04.2022
Olivia G. Wing, History, University of Oregon

The conference emerged out of the research group “Translations of Migration” dedicated to a critical assessment of the way concepts representing migration are translated across different cultural contexts. Using translation as an analytic, this expanding network of international and interdisciplinary scholars examines the ways migration is and has been culturally coded across time, space, language, and academic discipline. Between 2020 and 2022 this research group convened in a regular series of online Tiny Desk Conferences[1] to address theoretical and methodological questions concerning knowledge production about migration. This conference followed these debates, focusing on practices of translation and the roles of different actors in the creation of meaning relating to migration and mobility in different contexts. Scholars from the fields of cultural studies, literary studies, history, and anthropology came together to examine this concept from different perspectives. Panels cohered around similar applications of “translation” to diverse research topics spanning disciplines, time, and location. These talks and the discussions that followed aimed not only to explore the possibilities that “translation” offers to migration studies, but to relocate agency and deconstruct structural apparatuses that ascribe cultural meaning to people read as migrants and processes known as migration.

Opening the conference, Vice Provost for International Affairs at University of Oregon DENNIS GALVAN (Eugene) greeted the participants, and JULIE WEISE (Eugene) provided introductory remarks, both noting the substantial hurdles posed by COVID-19 that long delayed this event.

The first panel critically examined how migrant lives are made legible or re-assembled through narrative. KIRSTEN SILVA GRUESZ (Santa Cruz), scholar of Literary and Latino/a Studies, addressed the limitations of the narrative genre and the archive in representations of migrants. Drawing from examples of 19th-century property inventories and contemporary visual art pieces using items left behind by migrants, her paper posits that anti-narrative – or poetic refusals to “tell” migrant histories – highlights the fragmentary nature of items and documents they have left behind. A poetically critical approach to history, therefore, provides a necessary examination of how archives are assembled in the present day and the role of viewer/reader themselves in interpretating representations of contemporary U.S.-Mexico border crossings.

Historian ANAND YANG (Seattle) uses vocabulary employed by Bihari migrants and a genre of plays representing the pains of separation to consider the concept of space and movement from migrant perspectives in 19th-century India. The use of keywords to ground this historical work allows a critical examination of colonial archives and insight to Bihari notions of home and migration in the absence of first-person written accounts. The notion of being “abroad” included both internal and international migration, and many international migrants formerly acquainted themselves with separation from home through internal migrations to colonial factory jobs in the “East”.

Cultural anthropologist LOK SIU (Berkeley) explored the translations of culinary traditions and techniques in Peru’s Chinese diaspora, from coolie labor camps to elite Peruvian kitchens and upper-class Chinese restaurants. The word “chifa” itself – used to describe Chinese food and restaurants in a distinctly Peruvian context – has shifted in meaning throughout the mid-19th and 20th centuries, but nonetheless makes legible the shifts in migration and economic diversification of Chinese Peruvians that led to wider acceptance of “chifa”.

The second panel focused on the difference between migrant stories and their aesthetically mediated form. LAURA BIEGER (Groningen/Bochum) offered a literary studies perspective on the reciprocal relationship between storytelling and belonging. By examining Edwidge Danticat’s body of work that spans genre, media, and occupation, Bieger traces a constellation of writings and the relationship between those texts that illustrate the amplified capacity for narrative as a home-making tool for migrants. The shared plots and themes serve to connect these works and draw distinction between those readers who translate those themes to their own experiences of migration or consume narratives of migration second-hand.

Cultural Studies scholar CATHERINE S. RAMIREZ (Santa Cruz) discussed the salience of child migration narratives in 21st-century representations of immigrant and refugee experiences. Ramirez interrogates the use of puppetry, specifically the recent traveling performance “The Walk,” to explore the interactive elements of multimedia performance and the moral economy of child narratives. Aesthetic representations of the figure of the migrant child confound the specter of the economic migrant in popular imagination, underlining the significance of children as symbols of permanent settlement.

Historian JULIE WEISE (Eugene) examined the relationship between migrant workers and globalizing popular culture by surveying the reception of films shown in post-war United States labor camps and South African recruitment sites in Malawi. Mexican braceros and Malawi miners translated the themes, narratives, and imagery of the popular Western genre into meanings that bridged the emotional gap created by migration away from their homes. The nostalgia and familiarity evoked in their reception of these films allow a window into how migrants themselves understood their relationship to home in aesthetically mediated forms.

The public keynote featured three short presentations, a conversation between the panelists, and a public question and answer session. Catherine S. Ramirez outlined the evolution of meaning and applications of “assimilation” in the United States. While racialization and assimilation are frequently figured as separate, sequential phases that immigrants pass through, she argues that the word’s application to indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans and their descendants, and guestworkers demonstrates that these concepts are intertwined. Decoupling assimilation and immigration reveals the former as a process of subordination and racialization. Historian FREDY GONZÁLEZ (Chicago) spoke about the implementation of assimilationist policies for Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia. These policies, such as the “Complete Assimilation Policy” in Indonesia, further racialized Chinese people and led to surges in racial violence. Decentering the United States in studies of migration allows insight to the policies and violence over integration that Chinese migrants encountered in Asia. CHRISTOPH RASS (Osnabrück) discussed the re-translation of the word and concept of “assimilation” as a measurable marker of social adjustment from the United States context to German institutions and migration research after the second World War. Until this term becomes an object of historical inquiry rather than an applicable concept, he argues it will continue to be used to maintain and protect dominant systems of power.

The final panel ruminated on varied meanings of the act, process, and practice of translation itself on our understanding of migration. Fredy González shed light on the multiple translations of violent conflict that erupted between the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and Chee Kung Tong (CKT), two Chinese associations, in 1920s Mexico. Local Chinese actors and Mexican officials translated – literally and culturally – the origins and stakes of these conflicts across the Mexican, United States, and Cantonese world. Working with local Spanish-language and disseminated Cantonese-language accounts of these events, González’s work engages with the often invisible act of language (mis)translation captured in historic sources.

Historian CHRISTOPH RASS (Osnabrück) presented a paper on the translations of the concepts of “assimilation” and “Gastarbeiter” (guestworker) between Germany and the US during the 1970s. In a decade of profound tension and change regarding migration, both states looked to the other for concepts to reconcile the demands of racial capitalism and nationalism. Rass probes how the very words and concepts around which scholars shape their analysis emerged from dominant regimes, and he asks whether the employment of those words reproduce systems of power in the ways that migrants are made legible.

American Literary and Cultural Studies scholar PETER SCHNECK (Osnabrück) interrogated the idea of translation as a meaning-making process that defines the relationship between the meaning of an entity before it is translated and after it is translated. Applying this concept to novels about migration allows insight to the multiple translations that representations of migrants undergo in reading.

Overall, this conference posed a reflexive intervention to the way scholars study migration. At the core of these conversations was a desire to make visible the theoretical frameworks, methods and disciplines involved in defining migration and migrants, and to critically evaluate the role of scholars themselves in the process of understanding and representing the people at the heart of these inquiries. To do so, they applied “translation” as an analytical tool to offer new interpretations of sources, reframe questions, and take seriously the transmission of meaning across time, space, and people. These papers looked away from policy and the state to more discursive and affective realms of migration. They sought to understand how migrants’ own concept of their choices, of home and belonging, and of migration itself have shaped the decisions they make. Above all, this research group sought not only to speak across their various disciplines, but to create a collaborative set of methods that critically examines the creation of meaning relating to migration. This conference – and the ongoing conversations among this research group – demonstrate that migration studies is taking new and dynamic directions.

Conference overview:

Welcome Address

Dennis Galvan (University of Oregon) / Julie Weise (University of Oregon)

I. Translations of Everyday Life

Kirsten Silva Gruesz (University of California, Santa Cruz): The Things They Carried: Representational Functions of Migrant Artifacts

Anand Yang (University of Washington): Migrant-Speak: Keywords in Bihari Lives in the ‘East’ and Beyond in the Nineteenth Century

Lok Siu (University of California, Berkeley): Chifa: How Chinese Food Became Peru’s National Treasure

Commentator: Roy Chan (University of Oregon)

II. Translations of Migrant Imaginations

Laura Bieger (University of Groningen / University of Bochum): Edwidge Danticat’s Committed Writing as a Translation of Migration

Catherine S. Ramirez (University of California, Santa Cruz): Child Migrant Stories: “Walk on Water” and “The Walk”

Julie Weise (University of Oregon): Labor Migrant Film Audiences in the Post-World War II Years

Commentator: Michael Allan (University of Oregon)

Public Keynote: Assimilation: Global Idea or Just an American Thing?

Catherine S. Ramirez (University of California, Santa Cruz) / Fredy González (University of Illinois, Chicago) / Christoph Rass (Osnabrück University)

III. Translations of Belonging

Fredy González (University of Illinois, Chicago): The Tong Wars in Mexico: New Perspectives

Christoph Rass (Osnabrück University): “Assimilating” “Gastarbeiter”? A Reflexive Approach to the Translation of Concepts in Migration Studies

Peter Schneck (Osnabrück University): Lost and Found in Translation: Re-Figuring the Figure of the Migrant

Commentator: Xiaobo Su (University of Oregon)

[1] Tiny Desk Conferences, TM, Translations of Migration Research Group, Last modified May 25, 2021,

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