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Translation Collectives & Activist Projects

Prof. Rebecca Ruth Gould has been publishing a series of interviews addressing translation and activism at Full Stop. Her latest is a great conversation with professor and translator Samah Selim and covers things like the differences and similarities between translating fiction and non-fiction, the status of translators in the publishing industry, forming a new translation collective in Cairo, and her experience doing translation work during the Arab Spring. Quote below, but read the whole thing here.

More specifically, in terms of translation ‘and’ activism, there is a huge need for what you might call ‘political translation.’ This was something I realized during the 2011 uprisings, when people were up in arms around the world and there needed to be a way for them to reach out and talk to each other. There was a lot of translation happening in 2011 and 2012, from manifestos, action campaigns and press releases to newspaper articles, video and film. In Egypt, a wonderful group of translators came together around the Mosireen video collective to do subtitling for their productions — street journalism and witness testimonials (incidentally, this was how I learned to subtitle, in the middle of a revolution, and it’s a skill I’m really thankful for). A lot of that broad and intensely dynamic translation action died down after the first couple of years, but I hope that it will see a resurgence in the aftermath of Covid-19. Fragile and exploited populations around the world are dealing with very similar social catastrophes and struggles as a result of the pandemic, and the kinds of horizontal communication made possible by translators are essential to creating alternative grass roots and internationalist readings of the crisis as well as programs for the future. It’s difficult for one person going it alone though. This kind of political translation belongs to collective spaces and larger political projects in order to thrive and do its work. There are some communities of like-minded activist translators out there already like Tlaxcala for example, but of course there is a need for many more.

There is also an older but more in-depth interview with Prof. Selim here. It gets into a lot more detail about her work during the Arab Spring, her work with the subtitling collective Mosireen, and thoughts about translation and activism more generally.

Now, all these years later, I suppose I can say that with regards to my academic profession and my vocation as a translator, the revolution honed my understanding of how an ongoing liberation project, very broadly defined, shapes the basis of modern Arab culture, including literature of course. My interests in translation have moved in new directions as a result. I’m not so interested anymore in the idea of translation as “marketplace” or “bridge”, but as a form of radical knowledge production.


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