30 04 07

Building Translation Networks in Social Movements

Quality vs. Mobilization

Anastasia Lampropoulou

One of the major issues to be decided upon when organizing a social forum is the question of interpretation. Discussions about interpretation are always in the front line when organizing a social forum since its cost and the cost of the interpreting equipment is the highest expense that every Social Forum (SF) organizing committee has been asked to pay. Even when no professional interpreters are engaged for the task, still the overall cost of traveling and accommodation of volunteer interpreters amounts to one third of the budget.  

When the Greek Social Forum (GSF) decided to host the 4th ESF in Athens, they faced the following dilemma: should they employ professional interpreters or should they try to form a volunteer network in Greece that would take over the task of interpretation? In this case, the answer was rather self-evident due to the scarcity of funds. Furthermore, the GSF which is mainly comprised of political organizations wished to adhere to the concept of the “social ground”; according to this principle a social forum should not only propose alternative practices and ways of doing things but it should also be organized through alternative processes. Thus, thinking it is not only the outcome but the process that matters as well, the organizing committee opted for the formation of a network of volunteer interpreters and translators. Besides, Greek is not among the widely spoken European languages and a decision should be made promptly. Consequently, the Greek Social Forum encouraged the formation of a Babels network in Greece, which practically meant the expansion of the international network of volunteer interpreters and translators that has been covering the interpreting needs of the Social Forums since the 1st European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence in 2002. Babels was developed out of the ESF’s growing need for interpretation in various languages and currently numbers approximately 9,000 members worldwide. Its activity is not limited in providing interpreting services but it is a political actor that contributes to discussions on the part language plays in the mechanisms of cultural domination and in the circulation of ideas between the various social and citizens’ movements. It is primarily concerned with giving every participant the chance to communicate in the language of their choice. Babels is organized horizontally, which practically means that there is not a person or a committee in charge of it; it operates through open coordinating groups which are usually formed out of the need to organize a social forum.[1]

In this paper, I will only refer to the relation between Babels and the European Social Forum, with specific accentuations to the 4th one. The relation between Babels and the World Social Forum (WSF) is a completely different issue, especially after what happened in the 7th WSF in Nairobi.

From time to time there is a recurring debate within Babels, and sometimes outside of it, about the issue of quality in interpretation. A lot of complaints have been voiced concerning Babels’s work during the forums. More precisely, the network has been accused of offering low quality interpretation. Indeed, this accusation is not groundless. The first and simplest explanation that might account for this fact is the composition of Babels. Babels’s volunteers are not only professional interpreters; it includes translators, students who study interpretation, translation and languages, as well as political activists who have amateurly intermediated once or twice in order to facilitate international meetings. So why do the social forums organizing committees insist on having Babels organize interpretation for the forums? And is Babels the only factor to blame for the poor quality in interpretation? The aim of this intervention is to show that qualitative interpretation should not be examined in isolation; quality is not a matter that depends exclusively on Babels’s decisions and practices. It is closely linked with the decisions made by the organizing committee of the ESF and the preparatory assemblies leading to it as well as the profile of the coordinating group.

I shall start from the latter. At the time it was decided to hold the 4th ESF in Athens, the Babels network was inexistent in Greece. There were only a few Greek interpreters and translators registered in Babels’s database – mainly professional interpreters residing in Brussels – but there was not any kind of coordination. The coordinating group was formed by two professional interpreters, two professional translators, two translation students, two psychiatrists and a maths teacher. In the following months one of the interpreters decided that she no longer wanted to participate. The other interpreter attended all the preparatory Babels’s meetings and followed the process closely, but he had no interest in playing an active part in the organization of the event, although he had interpreted in several social forums with Babels in the past. The other members of the coordinating group – the translators, the translation students, the maths teacher and the two psychiatrists who helped organize the whole event – were politically active and considered themselves “activists”. Although they were not engaged in interpretation, they considered their participation to be a political act. Some of them were members of political organizations and collectives that took part in the organization of the forum. Others, although they were not members of any political organization, were particularly sensitive to the issues of the Greek left and viewed their participation in Babels as a way to help in the organization of an event against globalization and to be informed about the evolution of the social movements. It can be said that the coordinating group was composed by non-interpreters who regarded themselves as activists. It is also important to note that soon the coordinating group acquired the features of other groups participating in the ESF process; they held open meetings every fortnight – where any interpreter, coordinator or ESF participant who wanted to could take part – and when it came to decision-making all their actions were decided on the basis of consensus. Through this process they became more politicized and they took to attending various activities organized by the Greek Social Forum.

The first action taken by the Babels-el coordinating group was to substitute the word “activist” for the word “volunteer” in the Babels pamphlets and posters. Babels was no longer described as “a network of volunteer interpreters and translators” but as “a network of activist interpreters and translators”. This was partly due to the connotations the word “volunteer” carried in the Greek context. This term was used, abused actually, a year and a half ago by the Greek government during the organization of the Olympic Games of 2004. The Olympic Games were viewed as a national challenge and the government had to prove that they could organize the Games successfully. In this context, a lot of emphasis was placed on persuading the citizens to “volunteer” for this national purpose. Babels-el coordinators thought that it was necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of participation and give a more political shade in Babels’s effort, to show that it was not merely an act of participation for a good cause but an expression of political awareness.

A crucial issue in terms of quality was the number of working languages. This decision was the outcome of the political orientation of the 4th ESF and the political views of the coordinating group. Coordinators agreed that there should be no official working languages. After the 3rd ESF in London, Babels had agreed that there would be no official working languages in the following ESFs; until then, the official working languages were English, French, Spanish, Italian and/or German. Moreover, the idea of having official working languages was inconsistent with the objective of the 4th ESF. The reason why the ESF was organized in Greece was to attract participants from the Balkan and Eastern European countries. Both ESF organizers and Babels coordinators realized that it was not enough to have English as one of the major languages. Most participants from Eastern European regions hardly spoke any English. On top of that, it was the first time the 4th ESF had been organized in a country whose language was not among the widely spoken ones, and the Babels-el coordinating group felt that every participant should have the chance to communicate in the language they wanted. In the end, Babels-el agreed that in every room there should be interpretation in one Eastern European language. As a consequence, the number of working languages was increased to five compared to the number of working languages in London, where there were only four. This practically meant that in every room there would be interpretation in Greek, English, one Eastern European language, and two Western European languages according to demand.

Although this plan seemed reasonable at the time, it had a very serious implication. It practically meant that Babels should accommodate nearly every need for interpretation. Eventually Babels managed to provide interpretation in twenty languages. It was estimated that around 550 interpreters were needed to cover 210 seminars in total. A hundred fifty interpreters were needed to interpret from and into Greek, and another 400 would come from various parts of Europe. At that time, no one was preoccupied about the issue of quality. No one wondered if the quality of interpretation would be influenced by the choice to have so many working languages, although this resulted in desperate efforts to find interpreters from regions that there was not a Babels network and mobilization for the ESF itself was limited.

Apart from the number of languages, quality should also be regarded in association with the way interpretation was organized and the inadequate mobilization. Regarding the way interpretation was organized, it was evident since the beginning that every Greek booth should have retour[2] into English or French in order for the other booths to take the relay[3]. This was so because very few non-Greek interpreters had Greek as an active language. Similar was the case for the Eastern European booths. This arrangement did not cause any problems when the interpreters in the booth were professionals, since professional interpreters whose mother tongue is Greek or an Eastern European language are in principle trained to interpret from and into their mother tongue. However, several problems arose when the interpreters in the booth were not professionals and they were asked to interpret from their mother tongue into English or French.

As for the inadequate mobilization of interpreters in Greece and Eastern Europe, especially in the Eastern European countries, where the Babels network is with few exceptions inexistent, it was very hard to contact professional interpreters and even harder to persuade them to participate in the ESF. At the best case, some organizers of the local forums could help us contact some interpreters. Babels-el managed to perform one trip to Romania along with the organizers of the ESF. It is now clear that Babels alone is incapable of mobilizing interpreters; mobilization for Babels must go hand in hand with the mobilization for the ESF.

Also, it is necessary to take a look at the way interpreters viewed their participation in the ESF. As far as Eastern Europe is concerned, most of them were very cautious either because they felt intimidated by the political orientation of the forum, or they were afraid that their involvement might absorb a lot of their time, which eventually would damage their careers, or they simply refused to offer their services for free because they were constrained to have various jobs to survive in their countries.

In Greece, the situation was slightly different. Most of the professional interpreters who were asked to take part in the social forum were reluctant because it involved working on a voluntary basis. Initially, the majority of them felt intimidated and raised objections about forming a network of interpreters and translators because they thought that such an effort would damage their acquired rights and especially the high rewards they have managed to establish. They claimed that creating such a network in Greece would deteriorate the status of interpretation since interpreting would be offered for free and participants would consider it a cheap service. Another objection was Babels’s principle to accept non-professional interpreters as well. They thought that after being trained by Babels, non-professional interpreters would consider themselves professionals and they would try to enter the market by asking for lower rewards. Last but not least, they professed that they were not sure if they would be available to participate in the event because interpreting is a freelance job and they could not possibly be sure that they would be available till the last minute. On the whole, most of them viewed their participation as a mere voluntary intermediation, and not as a political act. Nevertheless, even among those who shared Babels’s principles and agreed to the charter, there were a lot of last-minute leak-outs because the moment certain professional interpreters were offered a job they did not appear in the ESF. Nevertheless, it would be unfair not to mention that there were instances of professional interpreters who promptly responded to Babels’s call and dedicated a lot of time and effort to the task. Most of the professional interpreters who responded positively had some kind of involvement with the Greek left or had prior knowledge of Babels’s work at the previous ESFs.

It is relevant to mention that out of 500 interpreters who took part in the forum, only 180 were professionals. And out of the 180 professionals only 39 came from Eastern Europe and Greece. In any case, it is not accidental that 141 professional interpreters came from Western Europe and from coordinating groups that had already organized a forum.

That said, another question arises; who were the other 320 people that came to interpret in the 4th ESF? Given the attitude of the majority of the professional interpreters we contacted, we mobilized several political activists who were capable of intermediating. In most cases, they were willing to participate and they agreed to attend Babels’s situational preparation for simultaneous interpreting. Some of them had intermediated in the past in international meetings and they had already interpreted consecutively, but they had no experience in simultaneous interpretation. The advantage of having political activists in the booth was that even if they did not have profound knowledge of English, they had thorough awareness about the subjects that were being discussed in the forum. The disadvantage of having political activists in the booth was that they were incapable of interpreting from Greek into English. Political activists considered their participation in Babels an effort to help in the same way that they would have helped had they been engaged in some other sector of the logistics. They had no aspirations of learning to interpret and working as professional interpreters. 

However, political activists were not enough. Babels-el decided to contact students residing in Greece and abroad. At first, we tried to mobilize people who studied interpretation and translation in various universities emphasizing the benefits from the experience they would acquire. When more interpreters were needed, we started contacting people studying languages hoping that after attending Babels’s preparation they would be able to cope. In the end this resulted in having a lot of “first experience” interpreters who had attended the three-month Babels situational preparation in the Greek booth. It was doubtful whether all those people would be able to interpret simultaneously from English into Greek, let alone the other way round. 

At this point, however, it is necessary to spare a thought to the motives of non-professional interpreters. Why did they want to help to the organization of the forum by taking part in Babels? Participating in the ESF would be an interesting experience for those studying interpretation because they were given the opportunity to practice. Those who studied foreign languages thought that Babels would give them the chance to attend free lessons of interpretation. In fact, some of them asked for a certificate to certify the fact that they participated in the forum and were engaged in interpretation. As far as I know, every time an ESF is organized, a discussion arises in Babels about whether we should issue certificates of participation or not.

The participation of non-professional interpreters had two interesting dimensions; the first being that a lot of young people were given the opportunity to be acquainted with the process and the issues discussed in a ESF by being part of it. The second and most astonishing one was that some of the people who participated were not at all interested in the politics of the SF; in fact there were certain people who were completely adverse to the ESF’s principles. In any case, one might come into very interesting conclusions by investigating in more detail the reasons why professionals and non-professionals participated or didn’t participate in the ESF.

It is evident by now that quality is an equation resulting from all the factors mentioned above. It is the result of the decision to build an open network of volunteer/activist interpreters, the result of the political goals of the organizers of the ESF, who in this case wanted to mobilize participants from Eastern Europe, the result of the number of the working languages, the views of Babels coordinators who were responsible for the organization of the interpretation, the degree of mobilization for the social forum and, undoubtedly, the status of the national language in the linguist map of the area.

It is beyond doubt that quality suffered in the 4th ESF. It suffered not only because there were not enough professionals; not only because the non-professionals were inadequately prepared; but also because certain booths were understaffed. Surprisingly enough, the participants of the ESF reacted with understanding. Besides, there were certain instances of ESF participants who entered the booths and helped in interpretation. Not one complaint reached Babels’s offices that interpretation was unreliable and everyone seemed to embrace Babels’s effort. As a result, one cannot fail to wonder why the ESF participants did not react in the way the participants of any conference would react. To my understanding, this attitude is certainly linked to the ESF’s initiative to create a volunteer network; it might also be linked to the concept of the “social ground” that a few collectives of the 4th ESF wanted to adhere to. However, in a more regional level the decision to form a Babels network was a political one. The Greek Social Forum does not enjoy as much visibility and resonance as it wants to in Greece. By holding the 4th ESF in Athens, the GSF would enlarge the spheres of its participants and would give people the chance to know the principles and processes of the forum. In this sense, mobilizing people to participate in Babels would mean that a lot of people would be acquainted with the ESF itself and the political organizations comprising it.

In conclusion, it can be said that in the 4th ESF the issue of language and interpretation was intricately linked with the politics of the ESF. Interpretation was used as a leverage to mobilize participants from Eastern Europe. It was also used as a means to familiarize people who had no involvement in politics with the ESF and its political organizations. Therefore Babels, which has been the response to this need, was formed out of the ESF’s urgent need for communication and mobilization. In this respect, it is inevitable that it shares these two priorities.

[1] For further information, please visit:

[2] Retour is a term used in interpretation. Interpreting booths are always linked and retour occurs when some booths cannot interpret directly into one language. For example, if the speaker speaks Greek and their speech has to be interpreted into English, the interpretation should normally be released from the English booth. However, if English-speaking interpreters cannot translate from Greek to English, interpretation has to be released from the Greek booth. In this case, the Greek booth interpreters will handle interpretation into English as well. Retour interpreting is more common when it comes to languages that are not widely spoken.

[3] Relay is another interpreting term which practically means “double interpreting”. For instance, if Albanian has to be interpreted into Swedish and there is no interpreter who can do the interpretation directly, then Albanian is interpreted into English or French and then the Swedish booth interpreters translate from French/English into Swedish. It goes without saying, that receivers of interpretation are unaware of this complicated process. Relay interpreting is used as a last resort. Babels always opts for direct interpreting.

Anastasia Lampropoulou


other languages

Building Translation Networks in Social Movements Δημιουργία δικτύων μεταφραστών για τα κοινωνικά κινήματα 社会運動における翻訳ネットワークの形成