Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
If you participated in any of the ‘official’ spaces of the third ESF in London, you will at some point have doubtless traded in a piece of ID for a flashy, black headset providing live, simultaneous interpretation of speakers into languages as diverse as French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Greek, Turkish and even Galician.
Impressed by this apparent realisation of genuine internationalism, the role of language in global social transformation might even have briefly flickered across your mind before the long pauses, broken sentences and occasional loss of sound drove you mad.
But for how long did you think about the person behind the voice in your ears, hidden away in a claustrophobic booth at the back of the room? How much did you reflect on the skills, technology, resources and, above all, politics involved in enabling you to understand the myriad different languages that define and bring social forums to life?
Our guess is not a lot. Most people tend to take the indispensable role of language, and those interpreting it, for granted; many even assume interpreters to be paid professionals. The truth could not be more different. Simultaneous and consecutive interpretation and document translation are provided free in political solidarity by Babels, the growing international network of volunteer interpreters and translators at the heart of the social forum process.
Babels was born in the run-up to the Florence ESF in 2002. The dubious politics and huge cost of hiring professional interpreters for the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001 and 2002 led a group of communication activists linked to the French branch of the alternative globalisation network Attac to propose that only volunteers be used for interpreting.
Scepticism about volunteer ‘quality’ gave way to pragmatism at the 11th hour when the high cost of the traditional market route began to bite the Italian organisers. An emergency call for volunteers was made. Three hundred and fifty volunteer interpreters and translators were eventually used. Cathy Arnaud, an interpreter at Florence and now a coordinator with Babels Spain, paints the scene: ‘It was complete chaos, but miraculously it worked. We had to fight the organisers just for a space to work in; eventually we took our own initiative and squatted a medieval tower. It was beautiful but freezing and we had no money, computers, phones: nothing. Coordinators hung planning sheets on washing lines; some people stayed up all night to finalise everything. As for the quality of the interpretation: well, that was definitely a mixed bag.’
The success of Florence led to the spontaneous emergence of new Babels coordinations in Germany, the UK and Spain alongside the original French and Italian pioneers. It also prompted more consideration of language issues by the Paris ESF organisers, who gave Babels decent office facilities, computers, a longer preparatory process and a relatively large pot of money (£200,000). The 2003 Paris ESF drew on more than 1,000 Babelitos.
Following the 2004 WSF in Mumbai and the first Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador, the Babels database had almost doubled to more than 7,000 people by the time of the London ESF.
In October 500 volunteers from 22 countries were gathered, enabling some 20,000 participants from more than 60 countries to express themselves in 25 different languages.
Impressive number-crunching aside, however, the real story of Babels lies in its embodiment of the innovatory but difficult process of ‘pre-figurative politics’. By attempting to put into practice the principles of solidarity, pluralism, equality and horizontality, Babels is creating not only alternative systems and practices to free-market capitalist society, but also the social counter-power needed to defend and embed them permanently.
Underpinning the Babels philosophy is the organisation’s willingness to reflect upon its role in each forum and then learn and develop from practice. For example, following the unhappy experience of a two-tier workforce of voluntary and paid interpreters in Florence, Babels now makes the principle of 100 per cent volunteer interpretation and translation a precondition of its involvement.
Most important of all is Babels’ affirmation of ‘the right of everybody to express themselves in the language of their choice’. To this end, Babels is orchestrating a conscious process of ‘contamination’ in which the excellent language skills of the politically sympathetic trained interpreter interact with the deeper political knowledge of the language-fluent activist to develop a reflexive communications medium organic to the social forum movement. A good example is the Lexicon Project: an ongoing effort by volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds and countries to create a comprehensive glossary of words and phrases for interpreters and translators to best reflect different meanings according to national, cultural and historical contexts.
Unfortunately, the nice sounding rhetoric of diversity and inclusion within the WSF Charter of Principles still remains largely unrealised in many social forums, especially the ESF. Just as at Florence and Paris, the large majority of the 20,000 participants (and interpreters) in London were mainly white, able-bodied western Europeans. This failure over three years to significantly include those either living in or originating from central and eastern Europe and the global south, not to mention from the disabled and deaf communities, cannot simply be explained away by the systematic refusal of visas (witness London), problems of disability access or the gargantuan cost of international travel from outside the EU.
For both Florence and Paris, the inherent bias of the forum’s organisers led to English, French, German, Italian and Spanish being designated as the ‘official’ ESF languages. And although Babels successfully insisted on this formal language hierarchy being dropped for London, informally the same old colonial languages dominated the website, outreach materials, press releases, platforms and programme.
Curiously, ESF organisers tend to justify this status quo through the market discourse of ‘supply and demand’. While it is true that language hierarchies are an inevitable reflection of the continued dominance of western European political movements in the ESF process, their existence also act as a major outreach barrier to the social movements of ‘majority Europe’ and beyond: if people do not believe their languages will be spoken, then they will be less likely to attend.
Babels cannot shy away from its own responsibility in this regard. Because its development has been inseparable from that of the ESF, the majority of nationalities and languages of Babels interpreters, translators and coordinators belong to the same western Europe elite. And while it may dislike being treated as a service provider, it has generally followed the market model imposed on it by the ESF organisers.
Emmanuelle Rivière, an interpreter and a coordinator with Babels-UK, believes a period of self-reflection is required: ‘We must think carefully about our own role in reproducing the existing patterns of political, economic and cultural domination in the world through not challenging this language hierarchisation.’
Making the ESF and all social forums genuinely internationalist requires that trade unions, NGOs, social movements and networks work hand in hand with Babels to make connections with social movements in marginalised countries and pass on the experiences and knowledge gained so far to create new Babels coordinations. This is especially urgent for the next ESF, scheduled for Athens in 2006: there is a dearth of Greek interpreters within Babels. Without a genuine commitment to an unprecedented process of linguistic and popular outreach, and to the resources this implies, the ESF risks having the microphones turned off altogether.Stuart Hodkinson and Julie Boéri are coordinators with Babels-UK
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright