Can you imagine providing interpretation services to twelve million people, a century ago? Those were the numbers of people passing through Ellis Island in search of a better life in America.
Maria Aguilar-Solano, an assistant professor at UMass in Boston, is studying the historical role of interpreters at the infamous Ellis Island, and has kindly shared a working paper presented at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Dr. Aguilar-Solano’s research shows the role of the interpreter in court and immigration proceedings in the early part of the century to be far more comprehensive than today. Interpreters were given wide-ranging powers and make what amounted to life and death decisions for desperate immigrants. They were also pressed into service to “Americanize” new arrivals, and to act as advocates and social workers to the thousand of people arriving at the facility.
In her paper, Dr. Aguilar-Solano profiles two interpreters who worked at Ellis Island in the early part of this century, the most famous being Fiorello LaGuardia (later mayor of New York) who spoke Italian, Yiddish, German, English and Croatian and passionately advocated for better treatment of immigrants. These larger-than-life personalities were able to affect changes in immigration policy that impacted outcomes for so many seeking a better life.
As Dr. Aguilar-Solano points out, the role of court and community interpreters has since evolved into a more neutral and prescribed role. But it’s important to study the social justice roots of this profession. Court interpreters still provide a lifeline for people as they did a century ago, even if the parameters of the work have changed.
Here’s a link to her insightful paper: Interpreters at Ellis Island: A tool for Americanization (1892 – 1954)