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Social forums after London: The politics of language

In the light of the European Social Forum in London, Red Pepper assesses the strengths and weakness of the concept.

December 1, 2004
7 min read

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

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