Babels and the Politics of Language at the Heart of the Social Forum


Language is at the heart of the Social Forums. Or at least it should be. The Porto Alegre Charter that continues to shape and guide the ESF process makes clear our collective commitment to “reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action”. It reminds us that the Forum must always be open to pluralism and “the diversity of genders, ethnicities, cultures, generations and physical capacities, providing they abide by this Charter of Principles.” Breathing life into these worthy principles requires that people have the means to communicate with and understand each other in ways that are egalitarian and democratic. As Susan George writes in her new book ‘Another World is Possible If…’, political activists are as guilty as the ruling classes in using language for purposes of power, control and domination:

Some people use specialised language in order to communicate faster with each other…but others may consciously or unconsciously use jargon to impress or to exclude. Some may simply be unable to imagine that others do not share their vocabulary, concepts and intellectual framework.

Language in the ESF is foremost experienced through interpretation. For the last three years, participants in the ESF’s ‘official’ plenary and seminar spaces will have all at some point traded in a piece of identity for a flashy black headset providing live, simultaneous interpretation of speakers into French, English, Spanish, German and Italian, and increasingly other languages like Arabic, Russian, Greek, Turkish, and even Galician. Those new to the ESF experience are often impressed by this aspect of internationalism; others, however, can be left frustrated by the long pauses, broken sentences and occasional loss of sound, and have been known to complain about the ‘quality’ of interpretation being provided.

Yet how much do ESF organisers and participants reflect on the people, skills, technology, and resources – and above all the politics – involved in enabling participants to understand and speak in the myriad different languages that define and bring the Forum to life? For example, a common misunderstanding among Forum goers is the assumption that interpreters are hired in by the Forum to cater for ‘international speakers’. Yet since the first ESF in Florence 2002, almost all simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, as well as document translation, has been provided in political solidarity by Babels, the growing international network of volunteer interpreters and translators that was born out of the Social Forum process. The development of Babels and the commitment of its protagonists to ‘learn from practice’ pro vides one of the best examples of how alternatives to market capitalism can and are being actively produced through the Social Forum process. At the same time, the problematic way in which the ESF (organisers) and Babels relate both to each other and language issues is evidence of the contradictory political ethics and practices within the ESF that must be addressed during the process towards Athens 2006.

The aim of this article is to critically examine these issues as a contribution to the debate on the future direction of the ESF process. We begin with a brief overview of the Babels story so far before turning to how its identity, principles and activities are being developed by learning from practice. Then we reflect on the serious dilemmas and contradictions relating to language within the ESF through examples from the London ESF.

Babels: a Brief History

Babels was born in the run-up to the Florence ESF in 2002 when the dubious politics and huge expense of hiring professional interpreters for the WSF in 2001 and 2002 led a small network of communication activists linked to ATTAC France to propose that only volunteers be used to interpret. Initial 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, unsurprising when one considers that professional interpreters normally command between 300 and 400 euros per day. An emergency call for volunteers was made to which some 600 people responded, eventually yielding around 350 volunteer interpreters and translators for the Forum.

Although rightly hailed as a great success, the Babels experiment in Florence was in reality a miracle born out of improvisation, some good fortune, sheer hard work…and a bit of old-fashioned direct action to boot. Cathy Arnaud, an interpreter at Florence and now a coordinator with Babels Spain, paints a frantic 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 booth 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 emergence of new Babels coordinations in Germany, UK, and Spain alongside the original French and Italian pioneers. It also prompted more consideration of language issues by the Paris ESF 2003 organisers with Babels given decent office facilities, computers, a longer preparatory process and a relatively large pot of money (£200,000) to coordinate and innovate with. Boosted by Babels’ participation in the counter-G-8 conferences in Evian and Annemasse, the Paris ESF was able to draw on over 1000 Babelitos from a volunteer pool four times that number.

With the Mumbai World Social Forum (WSF) and the first Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador under its belt during 2004, by the time of the third London ESF in October this year, the Babels database had almost doubled to over 7000 people representing 63 languages. From this network, the London ESF welcomed 500 volunteers from 22 countries who in turn enabled some 20,000 participants from more than 60 countries to express themselves in 25 different languages over 3 days. However, despite undoubted progress on many levels, it was widely felt within the Babels network that London had been the most politically difficult ESF it had participated in, especially in terms of its relationship to the host country’s main organisers. We return to this issue later on.

The Emerging Praxis of Babels

The impressive and rapid expansion and development of Babels cannot be adequately understood through statistics alone. The Babels network must also be recognised as an emerging political actor in its own right with a growing sense of identity and purpose. A commonly-held belief within the network is that of ‘horizontality’ – Babelitos eschew leaders and hierarchies and instead seek to work collectively as equals in a network organisation based upon creative thinking and consensus. In reality, horizontality remains a difficult principle to put into practice, not least because of the top-down and centralised way in which the ESF itself is organised.

Underpinning the Babels philosophy is a determination to continually reflect upon its role in each Forum and then learn and develop from practice. Out of this process, three important political pre-conditions have emerged for Babels involvement in Social Forums that are now guiding principles of the network. The first is that all interpreters and translators for the ESF must be 100% volunteers. This stems from the problematic experience of a two-tier workforce of voluntary and paid interpreters in Florence. Babels believes that hiring professionals or companies to ‘service’ the Forum goes directly against the principles of solidarity and developing communicational alternatives to the market that are supposedly enshrined in the Social Forum’s charter.

Secondly, Babels volunteers are not ‘free’ service providers and oppose any attempts by social Forum organisers to treat them as such. Instead, they see themselves as Social Forum organisers like any other and want to participate fully in debates about the “part language plays in the mechanisms of cultural domination and in the circulation of ideas between the various social and citizens’ movements” (Babels charter).
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The third and perhaps most important principle of all is Babels commitment to defend and promote “the right of everybody to express themselves in the language of their choice” (Babels charter). For example, for the London ESF Babels insisted that ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ language distinctions be abolished after the experiences of Florence and Paris, where the limited language pool of interpreters combined with the inherent bias of the Forum’s organisers to make English, French, German, Italian and Spanish the official and thus overwhelmingly dominant languages. As Emmanuelle Rivière a professional interpreter and coordinator with Babels-UK explains, this outcome led to some serious soul-searching within the Babels network as to its own role in the Social Forum:

We did not like the idea of helping to reinforce and reproduce the existing patterns of political, economic and cultural domination in the world through some official ‘language hierarchy’.

At a deeper level, in its efforts to bring to life these principles of ‘learning from practice’, ‘solidarity, ‘horizontality’ and ‘equality’, Babels embodies the two main positive achievements of the Social Forum process. The first is its Gandhian philosophy of ‘being the change we want to see’, also known as ‘pre-figurative politics’. In other words, Babels attempts to put into practice the very egalitarian and internationalist principles of the ‘good society’ the alter-globalisation movement calls for in facilitating communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

The second contribution of the Social Forums is that through organising as much as possible ‘outside’ of the capitalist sphere of competitive market relations, alternative systems of social and economic organisation based on need and solidarity – and not profit and private ownership – are being developed out of necessity. Annual Social Forums assembling tens of thousands of people from across different continents simply cannot take place unless we develop alternative means of internationalist communication to the high cost and qualitative limitations of the market. At the same time, Babels must not be seen as a ‘low cost service provider’ directly threatening the ‘communicatariat’ of working interpreters and translators. Instead, it is an act of political solidarity indispensable to the Social Forums and the development of a global transformative politics and movement.

Putting both these principles and the knowledge gained into practice is no easy task for a volunteer network working mainly by Internet, but progress is being made on a number of fronts. Partly through Babels pressure, the last WSF in Mumbai 2004 saw the spectrum of ‘official languages’ publicly broadened to 13 languages to reflect the ethnic diversity of India and the Asian continent, a development thought to have increased the number of participants from those language groups. Respect for language diversity is also being addressed through a commitment to improving the ‘quality’ of interpretation and translation. Quality in the specific context and purpose of the Social Forums does not mean a professional standard of ‘technical proficiency’ but the general ‘quality of communication’ experienced in the Social Forum as a whole. This not only concerns how interpretation and translation are performed, but also how ‘access to the message’ is facilitated or obstructed by the organisational structures and language discourses of the Forum, and its organisers, speakers and participants.

For example, Babels is developing innovatory new language tools through activities like the Lexicon Project. This is an on-going effort by volunteers from a wide range of countries and backgrounds (teachers, students, professionals, activists) to create a comprehensive glossary of words and phrases to help interpreters and translators best reflect different meanings according to different national, cultural and politico-historical contexts. It is consciously creating a process of ‘contamination’ in which the excellent language skills of the politically sympathetic trained interpreter/translator interact with the deeper political knowledge of the language fluent activist to constantly improve the communications medium within the Social Forums.

Lexicons are being formed in conjunction with the Situational Preparation Project, more commonly known as ‘Sitprep.’, which records WSF and ESF plenaries and seminars in a wide range of languages on to DVD to allow any volunteer – experienced or inexperienced – to more realistically prepare for simultaneous interpretation in the Social Forum. This issue links to the broader ‘memory’ implications of the NOMAD project to which Babels belongs. As Sophie Gosselin argues elsewhere in this newsletter, one of NOMAD’s main achievements so far has been the creation of Targ, an open source software system which can replace expensive propriety audio equipment used for live simultaneous interpretation. In addition to the revolutionary cost implications, using computers to relay the voices of speakers and interpreters the Targ system enables all speeches and interpretations to be easily archived, creating a direct and accurate ‘memory’ of all the debates, themes, and controversies of each Forum. Taking it a step further, the audio could also be streamed live over the Internet. These possibilities would allow millions of people currently outside of the Forum to take part via the web.

Significantly for Babels, the creation of Memory will allow the quality of interpretation to be assessed and new online ‘distance practice’ materials for inexperienced volunteers to be created. Not everyone will welcome this latter development within Babels. Many interpreters are already reluctant to have their work scrutinised and not just because they are ‘volunteers’. While professionals are simply not used to such practices in their particular labour market, non-professionals are often worried about being judged badly and marginalised. But if Babels is genuine about its commitment to  ‘equality’ and ‘quality’ of communication’ within the Social Forums, then these worries will hopefully disappear. 

Babels, Language and the ESF: Dilemmas, Contradictions and Future Directions

Despite the central role of Babels in both meeting the language needs of the ESF and developing alternative long-term communication infrastructures with others, the network cannot and does not function in isolation from the rest of the ESF process. Ultimately, Babels like everyone else involved in organising and participating in the ESF, must reflect critically on the outcomes and relationships being generated by our activities, and what this implies for future directions.

To begin with, we must all accept and attempt to address the fact that the ideals of diversity and inclusion within the Porto Alegre Charter still remain largely unrealised in many Social Forums, especially the ESF. Like Florence and Paris before it, the large majority of the 20,000 participants – and interpreters – at this year’s London ESF were again mainly white, able-bodied Western Europeans. This failure over three years to significantly expand popular participation of 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 be simply explained away by the systematic refusal of visas (the disgrace of London), problems of disability access or the gargantuan cost of international travel from outside the EU – the ‘politics of language’ has also played a central part.

Witness the London ESF. Although the official language hierarchy was dropped, informally the same old colonial languages of English, French, Spanish, German and Italian dominated the outreach materials, website, press releases, platforms, and programmes. This means that since its inception in 2002, the ESF has been almost exclusively communicated as a Western European event, contributing hugely to the fact that it generally remains so. How do we explain the continuation of this ‘language elite’ at the London ESF? In general, this year’s ESF organisers, steered by the controlling influence of the Greater London Authority (GLA), saw language through the prism of market economics, as a simple matter of ‘supply and demand’. This is a familiar story. All too often, language is treated as ‘something that interpreters and translators provide’ to those who say they need it, and not as either a political right to self-expression and democratic participation, or as a means of pro-actively including and expanding out to people and movements traditionally marginalised.

While it is true that language hierarchisation is a reflection of the continued dominance of West European political movements in the ESF process, the ESF organisers also heavily influenced the ‘demand’ for languages through restricting the supply. From an early stage, it was decided that the London ESF would be a much smaller event than those witnessed in Florence and Paris. The main organisers effectively made sure of this by setting very high entry fees and only planning for around 20,000. They also believed that in such circumstances, most of the participants would come from Western Europe and thus began to communicate almost exclusively in English whilst asking Babels to translate important documents for the website into the other main languages. This inevitably acted as a major outreach barrier to the social movements of ‘majority Europe’ and beyond because many people did not believe that their languages would be spoken. This was reinforced by the huge travel costs and the failure of the ESF organisers to put into place an adequate system for helping participants – including interpreters – to receive Visas to enter Britain.

But if Babels is a political actor like all others in organising the ESF, committed to language diversity and undermining power relations within the movement, how did it allow such a situation to develop in the first place? More to the point, why did it not withdraw its participation from a Forum that did not respect Babels pre-conditions for participation? The answers to these questions are very complex and still somewhat unknown, so here we simply flag up some of the dilemmas and constraints Babels faced.

In general, Babels could not prevent the de facto officialisation of languages because coordinators were only provided with information about the language profiles of registered speakers and participants two weeks before the ESF took place. Prior to this, it was only able to build up a vague idea of the nationalities of people and sizes of delegations that would be attending from second-hand scraps of information. This is because from the very beginning of the ESF process, Babels coordinators were excluded from the information flows coming in and out of the ESF office, and their recommendations for how to integrate language needs into the heart of the organising process were generally ignored. Babels was also not allowed to have any autonomy over its own coordination budget. In other words, just like languages issues themselves, Babels was marginalised from the decision-making centre consisting of the Mayor of London’s political office that runs the GLA, a handful of trade unions, and political sects like the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Action and the Communist Party of Britain. These forces ultimately controlled the ESF and put up political walls and barricades around a supposedly open space.

Because of this, and a number of serious problems over accommodation and reimbursement for volunteers, Babels issued a number of critical public statements and nearly pulled out of the London ESF on several occasions. That fact that Babels stepped back from the brink each time was partly due to the fact that reaching a consensus to walk away is far harder than agreeing to get involved, especially in a  a network bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Moreover, the UK coordinators of Babels who agreed to participate in this year’s ESF did so with their political eyes wide open. The reality is that the Social Forums – and especially the ESF – are not politically ‘pure’ spaces where everyone works together in mutual respect and harmony. They are instead political battlegrounds where self-interested factions fight for leadership and control and are met with resistance from those opposed to vanguardism. Babels thus currently accepts  that the innovations and alternatives being generated by projects like itself and and Nomad come not only through the annual process of organising the ESF and WSF, but also in struggle against those within them. And whatever the shortcomings of the organisation of this year’s ESF, we still managed to gain an enormous amount of knowledge and experience that we will now share with future processes, particularly through adding value to the Lexicon and Sitprep projects. Most importantly, pulling out would have stopped the ESF from taking place – this was not a decision that Babels alone should have the power or right to make.

At the same time, in an organising process lasting just under 12 months, problems develop cumulatively and become institutionalised before anyone has noticed or developed the means to challenge them. Babels cannot shy away from its own responsibility in this regard. Through its inseparable development alongside the ESF, the majority of nationalities and languages of Babels interpreters, translators and coordinators also belong to the same Western Europe elite. This means that however much we criticise the ESF organisers’ insular outlook, the way Babels has evolved inevitably acts to some extent as a reinforcing mechanism of bias. More seriously, while Babels may dislike being treated as a service provider, it has so far done little other than follow the market model imposed on it by the ESF organisers. This implies the urgent need for all of Babels volunteers, be they interpreters, translators or coordinators, to stand back from the ESF process and once again engage in a deep process of collective self-reflection and self-criticism in order to learn the lessons of London.

If we are serious about creating spaces for exchange between people from a diversity of social, ethnic, cultural and political backgrounds and contexts, with a multiplicity of needs, then all of us in the ESF process must collectively address head on the issues and politics of language and communication within our movement. Babels cannot obviously do this alone. Trade unions, NGO, social movements, networks and individuals must from now on work hand-in-hand with Babels to make connections with social movements and actors in marginalised countries and communities in the process help pass on knowledge to create new Babels coordinations. This is especially urgent for the next ESF scheduled for Athens in Spring 2006 due to the severe shortage of Greek interpreters within Babels. Without a genuine commitment by everyone to an unprecedented process of linguistic and popular outreach – and to the necessary resources this implies – the ESF is destined to remain centred around the Western European left and risks having the microphones turned off altogether.

Stuart Hodkinson is Associate Editor of British green-left magazine Red Pepper; Julie Boéri is a professional interpreter and researcher. Both are coordinators with Babels-UK; www.babels.org

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