“A Movement within Movements” – Interpretation and Translation in our Multilingual Political Spaces

Spanish, Kannada and Singhalese interpreters at political
orientation session for Zero-Budget Natural Farming Training,
Karnataka (2014)

The South Asia region of La Via Campesina has initiated a process of language justice within our movements to ensure that speakers of all regional languages can understand and be understood in our political spaces. South Asia is very linguistically diverse, with India being the third most linguistically diverse country in the world. Since our movements and ally movements are comprised people from the grassroots across South Asia, it is a must that speakers of any language can participate and lead our movement forward. In our context, knowledge of certain languages, such as English and Hindi, gives activists and leaders an advantage in communicating. However, the more our processes become dominated by these two languages, the harder it is to be inclusive of all people. This especially impacts women and youth participation and leadership. In the spirit of ensuring our spaces are democratic, inclusive, and participatory we are pursuing language justice.

Solidarity interpreters in

Jakarta at the 6th Global

Conference of LVC (2013)

Interpreters have an essential role in language justice. Interpreters do more than translate from one language to another— they ensure speakers’ ability to communicate and listeners’ ability to comprehend. Many professional interpreters also engage with social movements as solidarity interpreters. For example, some solidarity interpreters are professional interpreters who work in institutional form (EU/UN) or the private market but also work in movement spaces, bringing a high level of professionalism and quality to multilingual meetings and events. They are especially visible in global and European meetings of La Via Campesina.

However, in our context, movements have not been able to engage solidarity interpreters or professional interpreters to support our processes. Till now, activists, volunteers, and allies who work with movements have taken up the majority of the interpretation responsibilities. Given their community rapport and deep contextual knowledge, these activist interpreters are ideally prepared to ensure communication. However, many times interpretation is a secondary duty to their primary political tasks. Thus political interpreters face double roles, overwork/burnout and sometimes conflicts of interest, causing the quality of the interpretation to suffer.

How do we ensure language justice given the limited human, financial, and physical resources of South Asian social movements? This is a common question of all social movements dealing with multilingual constituencies. La Via Campesina, along with other social movements, has begun exploring whether this common question can have a shared solution in the form of a pool of trained political interpreters.

After holding trainings in Bangalore and Kathmandu, La Via Campesina co-hosted a training in Delhi this April, 2017 with Delhi Solidarity Group. Delhi Solidarity Group provides support to progressive peoples’ movements of diverse constituencies across India. The 15 trainee interpreters included activists, students, and technical people associated with social movements, speaking languages including Bangla, Oriya, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam, as well as Bahasa, Spanish and English. Veteran trainer and solidarity interpreter Katie Whiddon took the lead as trainer on interpretation skills and professionalism, alongside several seasoned political interpreters who added to the dialogue on the ethics of interpretation and the South Asian reality.

Yudhvir Singh, International Coordination Committee
member of LVC South Asia, gives a speech to
participants for their practice (April, 2017)

This fast-paced, intensive training involved near-constant consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, even during Q&A sessions and discussions. Katie stressed many times that interpretation is not taught but practiced, and so the training was designed to afford participants maximum practice time with fellow language-speakers. Skills such as note taking with symbols, memory training, vocabulary activation, and research were highlighted. Participants gave peer feedback to one another on quality of interpretation (including accuracy, completeness, and political coherence) and public speaking, as did Katie. Though a two-day training is unheard of in the professional interpretation world, we did our best to ensure participants would be ready to cope when they are suddenly given interpretation responsibilities in intense political spaces. Two leaders from Bharatiya Kisan Union also attended to give speeches in English and Hindi on the agrarian crises facing South Asian farmers which provided challenging and relevant fodder for practicing simultaneous interpretation.

In May, 2017 we held a second workshop in Bangalore using the methodology from Katie’s workshop as well as some online resources (available from Highlander (USA) here). Our fifteen participants were mainly Kannada speakers but also Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kurumbar, and Hindi. This workshop, held with the support of Environmental Support Group, was an opportunity to try out our own curriculum and facilitation methodology. We also introduced more topics on planning for interpretation in multilingual spaces (technology and resources) and power structures associated with interpretation.

Language justice touches so many aspects of our movement culture and is deeply relevant to the post-colonial and pluralistic experience of South Asians in the “LPG” era (Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization). At the Delhi training, it was our first opportunity to analyze, process, discuss, practice, and give feedback on interpretation, which shattered our understandings of what interpretation is (especially as compared to translation!). Though in multilingual family, work, public, and market spaces, we are constantly interpreting, we rarely consider its political weight. We realized that interpretation can’t be taken for granted— it is just as important as setting up a stage and microphone. And in movement spaces, we need to find new ways to prepare interpreters so they are not “thrown into the fire” without orientation, preparation, and support.

We also went through a process of self-awareness as we discussed the power and positionality interpreters carry within our social movements. How do we, as interpreters, ensure a profound emotional connection between the speaker and the listener despite asymmetries of power that may exist? Language is political and has its own hierarchies, and each word comes with its own baggage and sets of assumptions. How do we counteract the elitism associated with English (and to some extent, Hindi) as interpreters, both through verbal and non-verbal communication? Our movements’ ability to organize and sustain struggle at regional, national, and international levels in many ways depends on our ability to communicate across realities. What is the role and responsibility of interpreters in this political process?

Many participants also reflected on their own experiences both with interpretation and also the complex notion of “mother tongue” in the Indian context. While interpreting, many became aware that their mother tongue vocabulary was dormant. Participants reflected that as interpreters they discovered themselves in a new way and raised many internal questions of their own personal identity in the context of linguistic hegemony of English and Hindi.

Key next steps include individual and group practice, curriculum development, further trainings (decentralized across South Asia and a longer residential course in 2018), mailing list of volunteer interpreters, collective glossaries/lexicons, and further awareness building with our movements. We are also looking into collective ownership of technology that can support interpretation and event-wise support to groups. In Nepal, ANPFa and Katie are exploring the possibility of a six-month course in interpretation.

 Left- First trained interpreters thanked by participants of ZBNF training, Amrita Bhoomi (2014). Trainer: Jorge Soriano; Right- Interpreter felicitated by Shanta Manavi, former ICC member, in Kathmandu in March, 2017

Delhi-based interpreters trained in April, 2017 in collaboration with Delhi Solidarity Group and with Katie Whiddon as lead trainer.