Notes on Anarchist Translation

Anarchists have a tendency to overlook the issue of translation completely. In the long list of reasons on the schism between Marx and Bakunin, almost no-one (apart from translators) mentions the dispute over the payment of the translation of Das Kapital. Mainly, they seem to think translation somehow “happens” and it can be true, in some cases, like when an Italian Anarchist went to expose his ideas to Spanish workers. Despite not having any Spanish, he somehow conveyed his enthusiasm and these workers went on to form the largest national Anarchist organization ever to exist. This funny incident is related by Brennan in his unavoidable work on the context for the Spanish Revolution, The Spanish Labyrinth. However, sometimes it does not “just happen”, as we have seen in many instances in St. Imier in August 2012.

History aside, I would like to point out why translation must be in everyone’s minds. First of all, it is a task that needs doing. Many Anarchists around the world work in almost complete ignorance from what others are doing in other countries, which leads to a massive waste of time and energy that could be resolved by translation. I have personally thought there might be a connection between the “Anarchist golden age” and the fact that the vast majority of Anarchists of that period were immigrants, commonly speaking over three languages, and almost always translating large volumes of text from one to the other. I would even say that this correlation might not only be the result of the amelioration in exchanges that it made possible, but also of certain qualities of thought that translation reinforces: caring about the meaning of words over the formula that sounds good, or over who is speaking, being confused by forced or empty rhetoric, etc.

Secondly, it is a very important and obvious part of power relationships. When I see that some text has never been translated into some language, sometimes it is an understandable omission of a minor text, sometimes it is just chance, and , rarely, but it happens, it is obviously because the people who could have pointed comrades towards that text or translated it for them had no interest in doing so. If we do not discuss translation, that will keep on happening, silencing Anarchist minority views on some national issues.

The issue of power is a question I cannot avoid as an Anarchist translator. Not only in the choice I make of the texts I translate and who I translate for, but in the way I translate. It is so easy and tempting to use words with just a slightly different connotation to make the text either more likely to be accepted or on the contrary more likely to be rejected by Anarchists. And probably all translators do this, to different extents: a colleague explained how he did not translate avant-gardisme by vanguardism, as “it was a totally different concept” in both languages. The truth is, it is a complex concept in both languages, which has had times when its meaning was less negative than now, but, over all, Leninism is quite international. The current status of the translator in Anarchist circles is not one in which accountability is primordial, and, like the sabotage-loving workers we are, we sometimes have a tendency to leave a few pearls in our translations. It will teach them not to learn the language! We can only command the intellectual honesty of your average translator for the situation not to be worse than it is.

In the case of international meetings, it takes even bigger proportions. The issue of who speaks and especially who is listened to in meetings is a fundamental one. Anarcha-feminists have pointed times and times again that in many long meetings, a woman starting to speak is the unconscious signal for everyone in the room to check their phone, turn to address their friend, even walk out or do anything that they’ve been wanting to do for a while now but could not because the meeting drags on with men giving long speeches. This is destabilizing to even the best public speaker, but if this woman lacks confidence, it can lead to a circle of reinforcing social awkwardness which can even lead to the meeting ending without her getting a chance to finish what she has to say. When you translate such a meeting, you notice this, as well as who gets their interventions cut short, who gets credit for ideas, etc. Sometimes you get to make enforcement decisions: if someone exceeds the allowed time for their intervention, do you keep translating? Usually it depends on how tired you are, but also who the person is and how interesting you find what they are saying (to a lesser extent, on how annoying is the person sometimes shouting for the person to stop, thus preventing you to finish the translation of what was said even during the allowed time… Because it is not people the absent-minded people clapping at the end of a speech over you muttering your translation in the corner who are annoying, even so-called “facilitators” do everything but facilitate translations in many cases). How many times I shortened a speech by saying “he’s just reapeating what she said”? I have sincerely no idea. Too many.

But, at the same time that you have absolute power over what people get from someone speaking, and examples of sarcastic dubbing are numerous, whether insiduous or blatantly obvious, when someone tells you “now he’s just going on about half-baked Leftist crap” you know you’re not getting the word-for-word original; you are also, on the other hand, entirely deprived of your own voice. How frustrating it is to go to a meeting you really look forward to and want to contribute to, only to realize that they need a translator, and therefore you will basically miss the entire debate! And I say miss because interpreting is a pretty intense activity for the brain, but if there is one function of it that is impaired during it, it is long-term memory. All the talks I have translated have something in common: they are a complete blur.

St. Imier was a prime example of how, when little to no thought is given to translation, we can divide ourselves into linguistic communities who experience totally different realities, the polar opposite of what we claim we want to achieve through international gatherings. Those issues have to be addressed, not by Anarchist translators, who are generally only too well aware of them, but by the movement as a whole.


4 thoughts on “Notes on Anarchist Translation

  1. Is there not a confusion of interpretation and translation going on here? It is very interesting to see a discussion of translation in the context of anarchism! I am heartened!

    • Yes, I merged interpretation into translation. Some examples are about written translations and others are about interpretations, but I think similar issues occur in both these domains regarding power. This issue would require a much more in-depth analysis than this short article though.

  2. Btw, I’d love to get in touch with you about possible ideas for an international network of anarchist translators, like translator’s without borders – “translation without borders and with no nations” could be a slogan. Or if there already is such a similar initiative/collective somewhere. I know there’s the radical-translator list on riseup and some on crabgrass there, but not much else…

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