The Time of Now: An Interview with the Editors of the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism

In a chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, published over the summer, Turkish journalist and translator Ayşe Düzkan offers an anecdote: At a conference in Istanbul in 2014, she was tasked with providing a consecutive Turkish interpretation for one of the speakers, a British Marxian anthropologist. His comments centered on the Gezi Park uprisings that had captured the world’s attention just a year before. Though it was only his second visit to the city, he did not seem to recognize the irony in speaking to a Turkish audience, many of whom were directly involved in the protests, about an event in which he was not himself involved, and in a language they do not speak. Would a Turkish-speaking writer living in London be invited to comment on Occupy London, she wonders? That such a scenario seems unlikely is no coincidence. The absurd performance Düzkan observes illustrates how the politics of translation affect not only the distribution of linguistic access (so that desired information may be limited for speakers of a certain language), but also the distribution of intellectual authority (so that speakers of a certain language may be ‘taught’ their own history through an interpreter).

When it comes to translation and activism, it is this uneven distribution of authority that creates the uncomfortable fissure between theory – including the theory of translation – and practice, and it is this fissure that the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism (RHTA) delicately attempts to bridge. Several of its contributions examine the impacts of the translation of theoretical works on activist settings, and in the process, develop their own theories of translation: Michela Baldo examines the impact of the Italian translation of Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly for queer transfeminist groups in Italy, for example, while Manuel Yang considers the translation of Marx into Japanese, and its significance for the Japanese New Left movement of the mid-20th century. “When the original is an activist text, then its translation into another language, in another place and another time, has a birthright as an activist text as well,” write the editors, Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, in their introduction.

Others engage the practical concerns of translation from the activist’s perspective: Based on her own experience in community-led activism, Sahar Fathi exposes the need for language access programs that are a more current and accurate representation of the linguistic diversity of migrants in the United States. Focusing on the Irish context, Noelle Higgins defends the right not to have an interpreter in criminal court, arguing that low-quality interpretation is a threat to due process rights, and making the case, instead, for direct access to a bilingual judge and jury. As the editors point out, both advocate for the legal representation of minority languages, but different conclusions are drawn from the needs that arise in their different contexts.

Other chapters broaden our conception of what a text might be, literary or otherwise. Veruska Cantelli and Bhakti Shringarpure analyze the translations of recipes by women in the Gaza Strip, Sahrawi, Syrian, Somalian, and Eritrean refugee camps and detention centers. Eylaf Bader Eddin discusses the international media’s oversimplified translations of messages sprayed on the walls of Aleppo in 2016—when people were fleeing the city—as messages of hope. He outlines an activist role for the translator as “the corrector of the false representations of war who constantly—and often anonymously—retranslates.” 

Barricade’s Anneke Rautenbach sat down with editors Rebecca and Kayvan to discuss the genesis of this volume, how their concurrent paths in activism and translation led them to this point, and how activist translation operates in what Walter Benjamin calls Jetztzeit– the time of now. 

Read our review of the handbook here.

ANNEKE: I was struck by the use of the word ‘handbook’ in the title, which suggests something instructional and practical. When putting this together, how did you envision the relationship between theory and practice — between it being an academic volume and an activist’s handbook?

REBECCA: I have always thought of myself as a writer first, and a scholar second, even though most of my professional life has been spent within the academy. I think that the relationship between theory and practice is necessarily much closer for writers than for scholars. First, we need to be honest. We need to look at the material conditions through which this book is being disseminated. On the one hand, it costs a fortune, and not many individuals will be able to afford a copy (at least not of the hardback edition). Those with affiliations to universities that subscribe to the Taylor and Francis database can download the book for free. But its retail price means that academic libraries are really the main audience for this book at present. Viewed from the vantage point of these economic facts, the division between theory and practice is quite sharp, and RHTA is squarely on the side of theory and divorced from practice. Not many activists are going to have access to this text, it would appear.

However, I don’t think the analysis should stop here. The reality is that most books that exist as e-books, including very expensive ones like RHTA, do circulate widely, often outside official channels. They manage to reach people who otherwise would not be able to afford them, including students, especially those with internet access. In this sense, the digital medium is inherently more democratic than the print medium, simply by virtue of its reproducibility, as Walter Benjamin would say. Many of the volume contributors are sharing preprints of their chapters online, and we are also making some of the materials open access, both on the publisher page and the volume website. So, while I do think we need to reckon with the economic facts of book distribution as part of a broader critique of the unequal distribution of global capital, we should also recognize that readers around the world, including from lower income countries, are increasingly able to find ways to access the scholarship they need, particularly if they are young. In the spirit of Aaron Swartz, who has always been a personal hero of mine, I am committed to making sure that no one will be unable to read the book simply because they cannot afford to purchase it. So while I know that many will not be able to access the book through official channels, I also expect that most activists will find ways to access the book through unofficial channels.

KAYVAN: I think it is impossible to think of “translation and activism” without this duality between theory and practice, the academic and the non-academic, the office and the field. This collocation can also be regarded as a contradiction. Activism cannot be theorized in one way or another. It is after all a question of implementation. It was clear from the very beginning that the handbook would represent an assembly of translator-activists who gathered together to share their experiences: of using translation as tool for bringing social and political change, respecting diversity, struggling for equality and freedom. Both translation and activism are, in my view, performative, in the sense that neither of them can be detached from practice. A translation creates its own poetics just as an activist agenda develops its own approach to violence, inequality, oppression, and discrimination, according to circumstances.

We are faced with serious questions about the relation of academic research to activist intervention. One of these questions pertains to the possibility or impossibility of compromising between the two in a capitalist academy that seeks to extract a financial profit from scientific research. These questions cannot be answered a priori. It’s a matter of trial and error. And the exigency to act should not be eclipsed by hesitant considerations or theoretical caveats.

ANNEKE: You are both accomplished academics with backgrounds in comparative literature, literary theory, and translation theory and practice. What are your respective relationships and experiences with activism? Going into editing this volume, were you drawing on any personal experiences? 

REBECCA: My turn to scholarship began as a kind of activism. I was finishing my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley in 1999, during the most intense phase of the second Chechen war. I recall awakening to news of bombings and fresh atrocities in the region that I only knew from a distance, and not being able to understand what was going on. Like most majors in Russian and comparative literature, my education focused on a sharply delimited literary canon. When I finished my undergraduate thesis on Fyodor Dostoevsky, many unanswered questions were simmering in my head. I was acutely conscious of the disjuncture between scholarship about Russian literature (an enterprise I was gradually becoming a part of) and the pummelling of Grozny. I was frustrated that the tools I had been given as part of my education did not equip me to address the atrocities occurring in Chechnya. I could have become a political scientist, of course, and then have had an excuse to focus directly on the Chechen conflict as part of my profession. But it was literature that excited me, and which made me feel alive, and I found the armchair analysis of many so-called experts problematic. So, I left the academy (I dropped out of a PhD program in Russian literature at Columbia University), worked in publishing for a while, and then received a grant which enabled me to live in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I embarked on fieldwork in the North Caucasus that formed the basis of my first book, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Anticolonial Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016). Although that book is a work of scholarship, it was born from an activist impulse: to bear witness to the bombing that I observed firsthand, when I visited Grozny in 2004, and which had haunted me since.

When I returned to the US after living for two years in Tbilisi, I co-founded the Chechnya Advocacy Network, an organization that aims to help refugees and others affected by the Chechen conflict. I also translated human rights news relating to Chechnya on a pro bono basis during these years. While my activism on Chechnya was quite deliberate and carefully planned, I have also by a chain of somewhat unexpected circumstances (mainly living in Bethlehem during 2011-2, directly under the shadow of the wall constructed by Israel) become active on Palestinian issues. I am a member of BRICUP (the British Committee for Universities of Palestine).

KAYVAN: With me, activism is more a matter of generational political consciousness than a personal undertaking. This generational consciousness was formed alongside the experience of being born in a revolutionary Iran, enduring an eight-year long war as teenager, spending our twenties in the failed reformist movement, which culminated in the Green Movement of 2009, passing our lives in a state of emergency, within a politics of suspicion, in isolation and under sanctions, and seeing no bright prospect of the future in our forties.

When I was in my twenties, during the hopeful days of reformism (a period depicted in Farhadpour’s and Mehrgan’s chapters), translation was deemed a political act, due to its potential for reconstructing public discourse. Even the supposedly depoliticized post-structuralism functioned in Persian translation as a radical discourse that undermined more traditional epistemologies. A fever for translating and reading European critical theory led to a huge pile of translations, many of which were erratic, inconsistent, and unreadable. Underlying this interest in contemporary political and critical discourse was an acute anxiety of belatedness on a global scale. For example, the Iranian student movement was inspired by the events of May 1968 events in France. But the failure of the reformist project, both in a generational and in a historical sense, reflects, among other things, the contextual gap that separates Iran in the 2000s from Western Europe during the late 1960s. The European protester on the street, and the activist in the field, enjoys a degree of freedom of expression that is inconceivable in much of the Middle East. Learning from the experience of the oppressed does not necessarily mean imitating their models for resisting or overcoming their oppression. 

ANNEKE: You mention the Iranian theorist Morad Farhadpour as one of the first translation theorists who came to mind when the handbook was taking shape. Can you tell us about the inception of this volume, what inspired it, and whether there are other thinkers or activists, who, like Farhadpour, oriented you early on?

REBECCA: The simple biographical answer to this question is that I was invited to edit this volume for a series of handbooks conceived by the publisher. At the time, I was just beginning to work with Kayvan, whom I met during a trip to Isfahan. It was clear to me that he was the best co-editor imaginable, so I asked if he would be willing to join me. My early sense of myself as a writer and thinker has been shaped by Edward Said, James Baldwin, and Walter Benjamin. All of these, especially Walter Benjamin, influenced the shape of this volume. The contributions shaped and sometimes changed our editorial policy, but our first priority was to make sure to include non-academic activists alongside academics.

KAYVAN: I was thinking of the forerunners of Iranian modernity (tajaddod) as well as Farhadpour, whom we translated for this volume. The intellectual project of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in the early 1900s is inconceivable without the contribution of translator/reformists such as Mirzā Habib, ʿAbd-al-Rahim Tālebuf, Fath-ʿAli Akhundzāda, Aqa Khan Kermani. With their translations, these activists provided alternative models for social justice, freedom of expression, and constitutional monarchy. Another interesting (and earlier) instance of translational activism is the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, who sought a common language between Islam and Hinduism through his translation of Upanishads into Persian. I wish we could have included more chapters with a classical focus in order to demonstrate the historical continuity of activist translation.

ANNEKE: Were there contributions that presented particular challenges in the writing, editing or translation process? Looking back, which contributions stand out to you for any reason?

KAYVAN: Translating Farhadpour posed serious challenges. For an Iranian readership during the 2000s, the Persian text marked a decisive point in conceptualizing the relation of modern thought and translation. When I suggested that the article to be included in the handbook, I had little idea of the challenges ahead. The challenges stemmed from the context as much as the text itself. Our translation was finalized only after five rounds of revision. The most challenging aspect of the text was its elliptical nature. Aside from a faithful translation, preparing a readable text for the English reader required countless changes and omissions. The difficulty was especially rooted in the situatedness––to borrow Farhadpour’s term, used frequently in this chapter––of his work within the social, political, and historical conditions of Iran, which were unfamiliar to the English reader. Perhaps we could have explained everything in footnotes. We dismissed this possibility as it would have generated a frequently, and therefore unpleasantly, interrupted text. We had to respect a 9000-word limit set by the publisher as well. Also, in our abridgement of Farhadpour’s text, we had to adapt for a handbook on translation and activism, for which the article was not originally written. Neither Farhadpour nor we were entirely satisfied with the outcome. After producing a draft of an abridged translation, we sent the text to Farhadpour so that he could trans-create an English version. The resulting text was more than a translation in the narrow sense of the term. It became a new version in the process of its transposition into English. In the end, we decided, after getting permission from Farhadpour, to publish both versions—the full version on RHTA’s website, and the abridged version in the book.   

REBECCA: All the contributions are wonderful and instructive in their own different ways. The ones that have what might be called an orthogonal relationship to the academy, which call into question its boundaries and limits, played a particularly large role in defining the scope and mission of the volume. One particularly exciting aspect of the volume is that it provided an occasion for many of the contributors to work outside their comfort zones and to reflect on topics they had not written about before. For example, the Persianist Aria Fani wrote about his experience as a volunteer translator with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley for refugees seeking asylum, and he has suggested that this chapter marks a new stage in his effort to “highlight the connection between translation and activism.” By contrast with Fani, who addressed the legal issue of immigration from a humanities background, many of the legal scholars who contributed, such as Sahar Fathi, Noelle Higgins, and Miriam Bak McKenna, extended the disciplinary scope of their work to the humanities over the course of consecutive revisions of their chapters. Others moved outside their comfort zones in geographic terms, for example with Veruska Cantelli and Bhakti Shringarpure’s comparative account of “resistant recipes” in Gaza, Syria, and among the Sahrawi people. I was intrigued by just how many of the chapters ended up being co-authored, even though in some cases they did not start out that way.

ANNEKE: You write that for the contributors of this volume, the intersection of activism and translation is “unstable and subject to constant revision.” The picture of translation-activism that emerges is of an act that situates itself — implicitly or explicitly — in resistance to dominant forms of knowledge production, and this includes the Orientalist structures that still inform power dynamics within academic institutions, despite the best of intentions. Do you think that academic disciplines such as comparative literature have a responsibility to engage more urgently with the grounded realities of translation-activism? Do you see comparative literature departments rising to the task, or is it perhaps a missed opportunity? Or do you think translation-activism will always and inevitably remain outside of, if not suspicious of, academia, even as it is theorized by academics? 

KAYVAN: Although comparative literature is essentially involved with the question of the other, I think it reduces the other to an object of study. Otherness for comparative literature is a matter of analysis and less a matter of experience. It is part of a knowledge production process. Given the intertwinement of academic studies and capitalist funding, I think it is much healthier––at least until the relation of intellectual capital to material capital has changed––for translation-activism to be separated from academic theorization as much as possible. Because there is always the danger that the funder’s expectations will generate fake activisms, which become reductive “public engagement” advertisement campaigns and ineffective acts of charity. Sarah Irving’s and Malaka Shwaikh’s chapters offer excellent examples of why we should distinguish between Orientalist academic discourse and genuine activism.

REBECCA: Although literature has always been comparative, in institutional terms, comparative literature is a very young discipline, and I think it is far from achieving its potential. While, like Kayvan, I recognize the dangers of “fake activism,” I nonetheless favor a closer alignment between literary studies and activism. We should recognize the different spheres to which scholarship and activism pertain, but we should also aim for the broadest possible meanings of both literature and activism. Eylaf Bader Eddin’s chapter describes the verbal inscriptions on the walls of Aleppo during the Syrian war; such verbal fragments are also a literary form. So too are the testimonies examined by Brahim El Guabli, Amanda Hopkinson, Hazel Marsh, Bidisha Pal and Partha Bhattacharjee, and the autobiographical testimonies of Düzkan and Qasmiyeh. When we attain to a concept of comparative literature that incorporates these forms of expression within its understanding of literature, and which understands the study of literature as part of its production, then we will also have a robust concept of activism that can bridge divides between the academy and the outside world.

ANNEKE: Despite the fact that translation-activism by nature gives a fuller and more nuanced picture of the depth of injustices suffered worldwide, I found that the collection is nonetheless shot through with a hopeful note, one that resounds in your introductory chapter. You mention that the process of putting the book together was “an education in the art of thinking beyond the self.” I was wondering if you could say something about what it is about translation as a practice that offers hope in what has been a particularly dark moment worldwide.

REBECCA: For me, the most exciting part about this project was working with Kayvan as co-editor. Our work editing this volume coincided with our translating of two contemporary Persian poets, Bijan Elahi and Hasan Alizadeh, as well as a number of classical poets. We also authored several articles during this period. We were not just academics collaborating; we were also co-translators, whose language completed and changed each other. We have written about our collaborative process for the Australian magazine Overland. In working with Kayvan, both on our academic projects and as a co-translator, I discovered a new meaning in the word translation. I had never before translated in collaboration with someone else, and I came to see how radically the co-translation experience differs from translating alone. At the same time, no translation is ever done in isolation. There is always an interlocutor, be it the original author, the text, or language itself. This dialogic dimension to all translation accounts for its intrinsically activist dimension as well as for its capacity to perpetually generate hope.

KAYVAN: In the course of my co-translations with Rebecca, I was intrigued by the experience Rebecca described: letting your language be changed by that of the other. In co-translation, it is not the text that should make sense to you; rather, you should make sense to each other. And this is what makes the task an infinite conversation in which the interlocutors constantly throw light on each other’s insufficiency.

ANNEKE: Finally, it is worth mentioning that the volume has appeared in the midst of a global pandemic, perhaps further deepening the potential of the moment as Jetztzeit. In Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” Jetztzeit contains the possibility of revolution, in contrast with the ruling class’s “homogenous empty time.” Do you think that the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic and its particular range of challenges has offered new ways to think about translation as activism? 

KAYVAN: The pandemic has endangered, among all other things, the human community, in the sense of “togetherness.” Lockdown and its self-isolation have opened threatening horizons on our thoughts. I’m thinking about what I read in Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community: communism can be a flexible idea that motivates the rethinking of “community” and the forging of new forms of being together. I’m also thinking of Georges Bataille’s conception of a “community of those who have no community.” Due to this pandemic, communal activism—protest on street and collaboration in the field—has come into conflict with respect for the individual and public health. This situation makes it all the more exigent to think about activism amid the isolation that the pandemic imposes on our lives. Because poverty, injustice, discrimination, oppression, food insecurity, forced displacement, illiteracy, and political hypocrisy are as unhealthy for our world as COVID-19. Translation can contribute significantly to raising awareness, to forging solidarities among suffering publics and individuals across the world, in spite of the ever-intensifying politics of borders and walls.

REBECCA: Moments of crisis are important for bringing about change. It is interesting that the pandemic has overlapped so closely with the Black Lives Matter protests. It is as if the crisis of global public health—and its conformation of our collective mortality—has brought us to the precipice of acknowledging the enormity of race-based oppression and inequality. I think the main lesson of COVID-19—to the extent that there is any lesson—is the global interconnectedness of the world we inhabit. Now we know how easily mistreatment of wildlife in one country can cause deaths in another. And we know that there is no turning away from this global condition. We can go into indefinite lockdown, but we cannot make ourselves immune from what happens in a distant part of the world. We will flourish and perish together, as a species, whether we like it or not. As a structural principle of our volume, translation is the verbal expression of this interconnected global reality.