Can't Help But Help Valeria Luiselli and the Power of Translation

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Hannah Halberstam


In her essay “Tell Me How It Ends,” Valeria Luiselli walks the reader through her work as a volunteer translator for migrant children entering the United States. Luiselli gives the reader a sampling of the questions she must ask each child, as well as the effect asking these questions has on her: “It’s impossible not to read and answer [the undocumented children’s questionnaire] with a growing feeling that the world has indeed become a more fucked-up place than what we all imagined it could be” (143). Presumably in response to this feeling, Luiselli describes how other people have taken action: her niece’s decision to major in law and work with area activists (174); her students’ formation of an action coalition (176) to work with undocumented immigrants. She speaks favorably about their choices, leading the reader to understand that she respects people who have taken action, who have done what they can to help reduce the damage this questionnaire reflects. And so, we expect Luiselli to view her own work as providing an essential kind of help to these children as well. But this is not how Luiselli characterizes it. When describing a conversation with one young man she worked with, she reveals having told him, “I’m no policewoman, I’m no official anyone, I’m not even a lawyer. I’m also not a gringa, you know? In fact, I can’t help you at all” (166). 

Why would Luiselli say that she “can’t help . . . at all,” despite focusing throughout the rest of the essay on the absolute necessity of helping? What is she doing each day, if not helping? Throughout the essay, Luiselli gives us insight into what her days volunteering look like. She writes, “my task . . . is a simple one: I translate children’s stories from Spanish to English” (141). Here, she calls herself a translator, nothing more. But being a translator seems, by definition, to be helping people understand each other, which is absolutely essential, for example, for judges to grant the children visas (158-159). Thus, it seems reasonable to say that, despite what Luiselli says, one could indeed characterize her as “helping” the children with whom she works. So why doesn’t she think of herself that way? 

To consider the answer, it is worth looking at the context surrounding Luiselli’s claim that she can’t help. She made this claim during a conversation with a boy she refers to as Manu, the first undocumented minor for whom she translated. Luiselli describes how, when she first asked him a question, Manu said nothing, only shrugged slightly and stayed silent (166). It was after this non-response that she told him: “I’m no policewoman, I’m no official anyone, I’m not even a lawyer. I’m also not a gringa… In fact, I can’t help you at all” (166). In relaying the conversation to the reader, Luiselli describes her action as “reassur[ing] [Manu]” (166). It isn’t immediately obvious why saying she is unable to help would be reassuring, but Luiselli seems to be right that it is. Her statement marks the turning point in her conversation with Manu: it breaks his silence. What, then, is it about this claim that worked? Why would Manu find something reassuring in the idea that the woman he was talking to could not help him “at all?”

By saying Luiselli can’t help Manu, she characterizes herself as lacking power and authority in the US immigration system. More specifically, she characterizes herself as someone who has no more power and authority than Manu. To “help” would mean there was something she could do for Manu that he could not simply do for himself. (In this sense, she actually can help—she can translate Manu’s stories from Spanish to English, something he cannot do on his own—but the claim that she cannot help need not be perfectly accurate to accomplish something in her conversation with Manu, or even to reflect some kind of truth.) In terms of accomplishing something in the conversation, her statement is successful: it establishes a common ground with Manu. As they continue to talk, Luiselli describes them as “both newcomers to this situation” (167), and, later, discusses their shared disbelief for the incredible view from the courtroom window (169-170). That is, she genuinely seems to feel she has something in common with Manu, that they both lack a certain kind of power and authority in the system they are attempting to navigate together.

But if this explains why Luiselli told Manu she could not help him, it still leaves open the question of why she chose to include the statement in her essay. She must, of course, have thousands of exchanges she could write about. Why did she decide to recount one in which she stated the work she has devoted so much time to was not helping? 

If Luiselli told Manu she couldn’t help him in order to establish some common ground, and to begin to gain his trust, we might wonder whether she had similar reasons for relaying the statement “I can’t help . . . at all” to the reader. It is hard to imagine, however, that she is hoping to get the same reaction from the reader that she got from Manu, given how different her likely target audience—American readers from all walks of life—may be from him. Is it possible Luiselli might be trying to reassure her readers, too? Or is she hoping her readers understand something completely different when hearing this statement?

The answer may be both. To better understand what Luiselli wants the reader to take from this statement, let us first consider what she might want the reader to take from the essay as a whole. When describing the action coalition her students formed after attending her class, she says, “It only takes a group of ten motivated students to begin making a small difference” (176). That is: even a small group with motivation, initiative, and energy can make things better. When discussing what drives her to tell stories, Luiselli says it is a “combination of anger and clarity,” and a “country that is as beautiful as it is broken.” She and her family are somehow now part of it, “so we are also broken with it and . . . we have to do something about that.” These emotions, then, drive her to tell stories, which is her way of making change. For Luiselli, anger drives her to tell stories, which is her way of making change. Finding America broken makes her feel as though she, too, is broken, and, thus, that she has no choice but to try to repair this brokenness. It seems reasonable to assume, in an essay that centers around such a fundamentally broken part of America—the immigration system, and in particular, the intake system for undocumented children—that she expects the reader to come to a similar conclusion, to also think, this country, this system, is broken and because I am a part of it, I am broken, too, and must help repair it.

But if Luiselli wants the reader to see the entire essay as a call to action, why state in the middle of the piece that the action she herself is taking is not a form of “help”? Isn’t that terribly demoralizing? Luiselli has put in all this work, one might think, and still, she isn’t helping at all? If that’s the case, a reader might well wonder why they should ever hope to help. This could be a reasonable takeaway—but only if Luiselli had not already made it so clear how helpful she really is being. The reader knows that she is a translator, and that she is helping children tell their stories to judges who have the power to decide whether or not to issue visas to these children. Readers know that what she is doing is essential. 

This suggests that Luiselli relays this statement to the reader for the same reason she told Manu: to establish common ground. It tells the reader that they are not alone in feeling absolutely overwhelmed, helpless, and powerless in a system that is as complicated as it is disturbing. In Luiselli’s words, there is a “trail of bloodshed” from “Patagonia to Alaska,” which is “one of the bloodiest and cruelest spectacles that the twenty-first century has given” (156). In the face of this, who wouldn’t feel helpless? 

Certainly not Luiselli. This, then, finally allows us to see the twin purpose of Luiselli’s statement that she cannot help Manu at all. It establishes common ground twice, with two different audiences. First, it tells Manu that Luiselli, like Manu, lacks power and authority in the immigration system, and thus, that even if he may not trust her, it is safe for him to talk to her. And second, it tells the reader that Luiselli, too, knows what it is like to feel unable to help, but that she takes action nonetheless. For Manu, common ground offers reassurance; for the reader, it is a call to action. 

The antidote to feeling powerless is not to turn away from the problem that made you feel that way, Luiselli seems to be telling us. The antidote to feeling powerless is to keep fighting, just as she does over and over, after every horrific story she hears, after every demoralizing day that leaves her with a “feeling of frustration, a sense of defeat” (159). A broken country leaves all of its people broken along with it. There might be no sure way to fix it. Luiselli certainly does not offer a solution or an easy path forward. But she does force us to see that we must keep taking action to make things better.



Luiselli, Valeria. “Tell Me How It Ends (An Essay in Forty Questions).” Freeman’s: Family, 2016, pp. 141-183.

Author Biography

Hannah Halberstam, '25CC

portrait of Hannah Halberstam

Hannah Halberstam is a History and Urban Studies major from Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can usually find her in Riverside Church, either on the fourth floor writing for the Columbia Daily Spectator or on the tenth floor rehearsing with the Athletics Pep Band. She spends time on campus helping run CU SLAM! poetry workshops, playing with the Columbia Klezmer Ensemble, and participating in Housing Equity Project. In her free time, she enjoys writing fiction, going for walks in Riverside Park with friends, and drinking way too much coffee. 

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Critical Inquiry
How to Cite
Halberstam, H. (2023). Can’t Help But Help: Valeria Luiselli and the Power of Translation. The Morningside Review, 19. Retrieved from