Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Just Words Co-op. We are sharing this article to encourage critical thinking and respectful debate around issues related to translation, interpretation, and language justice.
Even when working in a single language, words, phrases, and ideas can get “lost in translation” in the context of activism. When activist work happens in multilingual contexts (as it should), linguistic complications can grow exponentially. Translating for activists adds yet another level of political considerations to a process that is already inherently political (working in environments with unequal distributions of power based on identity and access to resources, for example). Translators must show additional levels of care when translating texts into different national and linguistic contexts, especially when this language is politically charged.
I recently translated information about an international week of action to oppose NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and sanctions against the Russian people from English into French, a controversial position considering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.* However, I agreed with the overall political message of the week of action, at least one of the original cosponsoring organizations was based in France, and I felt that native French speakers had the right to read this call for action and the right to come to their own conclusions.
Some of the language was contentious, and I had to make sure I translated for meaning without inadvertently using more politically charged or inaccurate language. The source text read, “The United States and its allies continue to portray the current situation as one of Russian aggression without acknowledging that US-backed Ukrainian forces are attacking the Eastern region of the country and killing citizens of Russian ethnicity.” I translated the last part of the sentence as, “tuent des citoyens d’origine ethnique russe,” which is as close to a literal translation as possible. “Citizens of Russian ethnicity” becomes “citizens of Russian ethnic origin.” Staying as close to a literal translation as possible was important in this case because the Russian government falsely claimed that the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian Neo-Nazis (which do exist but play a minor role in Zelensky’s government) were carrying out ethnic cleansing or genocide in eastern Ukraine.
Even in less controversial situations, there is always a need to “translate” activist work, even when it is conducted primarily or exclusively in a single language. Political terminology and slogans do not typically follow the same patterns of everyday speech or language. Slogans usually have literal meanings that are sometimes at odds with their political meanings. The slogan “all lives matter” might be literally true but is, in reality, a political effort to deflect attention away from the slogan “Black lives matter,” which both affirms Black humanity and points to the disproportionately high levels of state violence faced by Black people in the United States and globally. Activism is always a kind of translation where groups of people come together, find a common message or rallying cry, and try to change society based on that shared understanding.
To further complicate things, translating for activists occurs in a short time span, or even spontaneously. Sometimes, slogans remain in the source language but obtain an international significance, such as #BlackLivesMatter. In other situations, a slogan’s meaning is translated but is adapted to different national contexts: the French equivalent of #MeToo was #MoiAussi (a literal translation) in Quebec but the crasser #BalanceTonPorc (“#ControlYourD***”) in France.
Translators who both engage in activist work themselves and who translate for activists (its own kind of activist work, advancing the cause of language justice) should recognize that activism is always a kind of translation to move language and the world itself from one place to another (hopefully in a more just, equitable, and freer direction). While translating for meaning is important, it is equally important to recognize that meaning shifts across various contexts and often within a single linguistic context.
*The ANSWER Coalition, the organization I am part of, does not support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but argues that NATO expansionism exacerbated the conditions that led to the current crisis. Upholding the UN Charter, one of the demands from the week of action, means respecting the sovereignty of member states and resolving conflicts peacefully; Russia has not done this. However, we do not believe that NATO expanding into Northern and Eastern Europe would lead to a more peaceful, safe, or equitable world; it would bring us closer to a major military conflict between two nuclear armed powers. According to Statista, NATO countries spend $1.2 trillion on military spending, while the rest of the world combined (including Russia and China) spend $720 billion. We believe that money could be better spent to meet human needs.