Blog | June 2018

Fieldnotes on interpretation and the limits of activist-research

by Sonja Moghaddari

Audrey’s headphones cover just one ear; she left the other one free to hear her own voice, relentlessly whispering into the microphone. Her eyes meet mine to tell me that everything is fine, that she is following the conversation. Highly concentrated, she is translating simultaneously what is said in English into French for some of the people who came from Africa. Audrey’s whispering melts into a collective murmur that sets the group of people around me off from the silently listening public. With the podium in front of me, I sit in the first row of the auditorium. To my left and to my right, activist-interpreters. Like Audrey, they whisper into microphones, each in a different language, their peculiar hand gestures, invisible to the public, underlining another person’s discourse. Our eyes wander around, checking on each other. Movements, voices, glances together create a rhythm, the heartbeat that ties us together as a group for the time of a conference that unites several hundred activists and researchers in Germany.

We are at the final discussion on the third day. You can see the tiredness in the interpreters’ eyes. Participants share their thoughts on the event, most of them highly positive impressions and compliments to the organization. Then, something unexpected happens. Malte, a tall blond interpreter in his early thirties, takes the microphone. My colleagues set in to translate – with widening eyes as, for the first time, we are directly concerned by what is said.

“I would like to say something about our experience as interpreters. First, I would like to thank you for having invited us. However, it is not enough to invite an interpreters’ collective. You also need to provide proper conditions for translation. Many people speak much too fast. Interpretation needs to receive consideration. Interpretation needs time and space. Indeed, as the days pass, we realize that there were always less attendees who needed translation. This is significant in itself… Now may not be the space to say more, but we will write you an email.”

Applause. A colleague and I raise our hands and shake them in acquiescence. Within the group, we look at each other in confirmation. Apart from this, the public leaves the remark uncommented. After the conference ends, I thank Malte for having said something that I would not have dared to say. On the evening before, after we finished the last translation, I had joined the group – agitated. We sat under a tree drinking beer and started the discussion that led to Malte’s intervention. This is a short record about how I became unsettled. Drawing on auto-ethnographic notes on being an interpreter, an activist and a researcher at an anti-racist conference, my aim is to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of combining research and activism related to issues of immigration.

Let me shortly describe the context of the event. Taking place against the backdrop of the entry of the right-wing party AFD (Alternative für Deutschland) into the German parliament in 2017, the conference’s aim was to form the basis of a large, pluralistic pro-immigration movement. The program contained multiple workshops along different lines of activist engagement. The declared aim was to reflect this plurality of voices in the diversity of participants. In order to include activists and researchers (most of whom also consider themselves activists) from the Global South, who were largely outnumbered by their peers of German or European origin, the organizers called for volunteer interpreters. As an anthropologist and local pro-migrant activist who is fluent in several languages, I regularly interpret in smaller meetings. I decided that interpretation was the best way I could both meaningfully contribute while simultaneously doing ethnographic fieldwork. On day one of the event, I got to know the other interpreters, most of whom had come from all parts of Germany. I learned that interpretation was going to be simultaneous and not consecutive, and that we would work in pairs with professional equipment. In sum, despite most of us not being professional interpreters, the frame conditions were technically quite propitious.

Resuming with my narrative, the experience that triggered my agitation and that then led to Malte’s open critique happened on day two. I arrive late at a workshop about migration and labor right movements. A woman in her late twenties with short brown hair is talking in English with an Austrian accent. She put her feet on her chair, hugging her naked knees. She is one of ten people sitting around an assembly of tables. As I see no other interpreter in the room, I move toward a free chair next to a person who I think might need translation. As I sit down and ask, the man in his early thirties with black hair, a brown complexion and almond-shaped eyes says “No... Farsi (Persian)?” I guessed from his physical appearance that he might be of Afghan origin; probably, he came to Germany recently. Persian is my second mother tongue, but simultaneous interpretation is challenging. I decide that it would be better than no translation at all, assuming that his English barely allows him to talk about everyday issues, while the debate is about labor strikes, transnational mobility, and the “neoliberal order”. Apologizing for my limited knowledge, I start resuming the arguments, whispering and hesitantly searching for words. To facilitate my task, I also intervene into the group discussion: “I am now translating, please check from time to time if I follow and speak slowly.” Except for the Afghan man, everybody was fluent in English. Apart from him, no one had experienced migration from outside of Europe, as the subsequent presentation confirmed. A German activist in his fifties, who, judging by his extensive knowledge, had been engaged in pro-migrant movements for at least two decades, leads the debate. He had invited three young women from different European countries, each representing a movement that struggled for migrant labor rights locally or transnationally. Apart from the speakers, two young persons presented themselves as researcher-activists working on migration. One of them was Black, probably a second-generation migrant. The discussion moves on. It is dominated by two men, who are about 50 and 65 years old, and the conveners of the workshop. I struggle to keep up with the its pace. Although everybody can hear me whisper, but no one slows down to facilitate interpretation.

Progressively, I grow uncomfortable translating what is said. The participants talk about immigrants: they explain how bad their situation on the labor market was, and how their associations supported their claims. They say that the working conditions of migrants are the worst of all people in European countries, worse than those of local working classes. In sum, I translated how the participants talked about the situation of migrants, without consulting the only person in the room who was actually concerned by the issue.

Simultaneously, I begin to feel that the man for whom I was translating began to shift uncomfortably on his chair, playing with the half-full soft drink bottle in front of him. Finally, he says: “It’s okay, you don’t need to translate.” He says it in Persian though. If he had said it in English, I would have thought that translation was indeed unnecessary. Possibly, the man felt sorry for me as he noticed that I was struggling to keep the pace and find the right words. Possibly, he was uneasy with the attention that the translation attributed to his missing language skills. Inevitably, it made him more visible. The visibility was uncomfortable, possibly because the attention we received was not actually favorable. The missing consideration speaks for itself. Hesitantly, and regardless of my poor vocabulary, I continue to translate. I even decide to intervene for the second time, reminding the participants to consider interpretation, stressing that language conveys power and inequalities. As if I had not said anything, the debate continues. Frustrated, I raise my hand as soon as I sense the occasion. I propose to get back to a suggestion that someone had made earlier, which was for each participant to present himself or herself. The convener finds me surprised as he asks me to start. While I begin to explain who I am and what I do, the man who I was translating for stands up and gets out of the room. He leaves the empty bottle of his soft drink on the table, striking me as a reminder of his absence.

I left this workshop deeply disturbed. On the one hand, I asked myself if I should have listened to the Afghan man when he said that I could stop translating. On the other hand, I considered having failed to reclaim his right for translation more forcefully. Had I been maternalistic in not respecting his renouncement? Maybe he would have left earlier had I done so. Taking into account that he was directly concerned by migrant labor conditions, his leaving could indicate, that he could not relate to what was said. His previous uneasiness, however, raises the probability that he left because he did not feel welcome. I felt helpless. After the workshop, one participant, a young woman from Italy, came to tell me that she also found that some of the participants had not been sympathetic to my interpretation. From my point of view, the observation of the interpretation being ignored or even frowned upon, together with the man’s early departure stood in contradiction to the inclusive and emancipatory claim of the conference.

This incident also stood in contrast to the experience I made when attending a workshop on migrant self-organization the day before. Contrary to the previously described context, all of the speakers were activists with migration experience themselves. All participants got headphones and we were six colleagues to assure simultaneous interpretation into and from three languages. Afterwards, one of the speakers, a French speaking man from sub-Sahara Africa, explicitly thanked us “This was really the first time when we could discuss at eye-level.” Thus, in this workshop, inclusion had taken place, as all participants were able to see their different resources – expertise and experiences – valorized.

The preciousness of this breach in structural inequality becomes apparent, as we consider that the same speaker, when participating in the conference’s inaugural panel just after this workshop, received only consecutive translation. As the panel went on, his speaking time was increasingly shorter compared to that of the other speakers and the man expressed his discontent, saying, “it is not easy with translation”. Interpretation has the power to accord or deny voice. This is even more the case in this conference, where interpreters, who are usually not supposed to contribute their own opinions, are also activists. While I stayed silent as an interpreter, as a participant, I had failed to express my indignation. The silence of the interpreters indirectly contributed to the fact that both the Farsi-speaking participant and the French-speaking panelist – newcomers to Germany – had been left voiceless in the described situations.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I joined my colleagues under the tree on the evening of the second day. As I shared this experience, Leila, who grew up in Iran, commented: “I know. This conference is for citizens. Not for non-citizens.” As she explained, I realized that her comment reflected years of frustration, of feeling paternalized, in collaborations with activists without migration experience. Collectively, we remembered the workshop where everybody was able to participate equally in a lively debate on migrant self-organization. This debate and the shared frustration led to Malte’s critical remark mentioned at the beginning of this report.

While the observation of unequal participation in the workshop and my own feeling of helplessness offered me new understandings relevant to my ongoing research, it raised the question of research ethics: What kind of positionality is it that I define as ethical? Is there a possibility to combine research and activism in a way that both fosters academic debate and supports pro-migrant movements? The danger of reproducing power inequalities in any field of activity seems to be ever-present.

Later, on the second evening, after discussing with my interpreter group, I shared the experience of failed inclusion with three local participants who I know. Two of them, both fluent in German, underlined that they had found discourses being too academic for them to follow in many workshops. Wanting to relate a positive experience, I addressed Holger, an activist researcher: “You were at that workshop about migrant self-organization, too. I think that this one went really well.” I was surprised that he contested “In my view that was the poorest workshop. The debate remained largely superficial. Everybody just related his or her own experiences and we did not discuss what were the best practices to apply to other movements.” Holger seems to advocate for research that systematically collects best practices from pro-migrant movements and spreads those experiences among newcomers, offering them ready-made toolkits. This probably is the approach shared by most of the researcher-activists present at this conference. However, based on my observations and my discussion with Leila, I am unsure of the extent to which this kind of “applied research” is actually enabling inclusion and greater equality in social movements. Alternatively, could the reproduction of unequal power relations be better contained if the objective of research was not being decision-relevant for policy or practice, but if activist researchers pursued activism as activists, and enriched the academic debate though more classical empirical approaches?

During that conference, I refrained from engaging debate. The interpreter does not to give his or her own opinion. The junior researcher does not want to create obstacles for her next job search. The activist turns to more fruitful environments. Thus, torn between different needs and constraints, I relocate the debate to this blog.


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