Babels and Nomad: Observations on the barbarising of communication at the 2005 W

Without an awareness of the problems, which we can only hope that the Forum organisers will acquire, the ability to solve them will not materialise.

For Sérgio Xavier Ferreira

Until WSF 2003, translation was treated as another “service” to be contracted on the market. In the construction of the WSF 2005, this relation is to be radically different: it will not be treated as a mere “economic question”. We believe that translation in the WSF process is militancy. It is a matter of political action trying to ensure that movements communicating with each other in different languages understand each other and to promote the reappropriation of technical means and mechanisms of translation on the part of social movements. [...] In the preparation of WSF 2005, translation stops being a “service” and becomes an effort of convergence and militancy” (WSF 2005: GT Translation, emphasis added by author.)

“By translating the discussions at the WSF, you will be making it possible for more than 100,000 to take an active part, regardless of their mastery of foreign languages.” (Call for volunteer interpreters, translators and technicians)

“We can nevertheless state that whatever the budget the quality of translation for the process and during the event will be higher than if, for the same cost, to externalize this task by hiring people: more languages will be accommodated in more rooms (or events) as well as a higher dedication to the meaning of the event will happen.” (Assessing the language issue for the WSF 2005 in Porto Alegre; emphasis added by author.)

"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis 11: 7-9)

0. Another attempt has been made to build the Tower of Babel, this time in Porto Alegre at the Fifth World Social Forum. Contrary to biblical myth, the defeat of human presumption did not require God to come down from heaven; a lack of understanding on the part of the Forum organisers was sufficient. It basically occurred in principle for the following reasons.

1. Many of the approximately 155,000 participants from 135 countries flew into Porto Alegre. Nobody thought of putting together a galley fleet of volunteer rowers or minimising the costs of intercontinental transport by using ships or even more environmentally friendly rafts. Nobody had the idea of replacing airline pilots with cheaper volunteers who had acquired their amateur licences or just had a liking for aircraft. But when discussion about the need for “another world” began, it was conveyed mainly by Babels [1], a network of volunteer interpreters, and therefore blurred. If the often cognitively challenged volunteers were not left speechless, they did actually begin to speak with other tongues, but the Holy Ghost failed to materialise in a repetition of the Pentecostal miracle. The chaos they created was not as apparent as traffic accidents or medical malpractice. It was mere noise and will thus be quickly consigned to oblivion in an increasingly noisy world. With NOMAD [2] it will, if we can believe the announcements and if Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s suggested synonymy in “Gedankenflucht (I)” (Kiosk, Frankfurt/Main, 1995) is correct, be “recorded, i.e. forgotten”.

2. On the evening of 30 January 2005 at the general debriefing of German-speaking participants, a lot of criticism was directed at Nomad simultaneous interpreting technology and Babels interpreters. One woman participant thought that too much had been expected of the interpreters; another found them “utterly embarrassing”. Elmar Altvater – who published a report worth reading in Freitag on 4 February and who has put forward a very constructive funding proposal to surmount the babel of languages (even if only feasible in the medium term), substantiated in greater detail in his report “The Big Meeting: Observations on the Porto Alegre 2005 World Social Forum” – found an absence of technique on Babels’ part3. Although I myself saw and heard alarming instances in some tents, I am neither able nor willing to make a judgment about the quality of Babels’ outside- or self-appointed non-professional interpreters, among whom there may well have been genuine talents and born interpreters. For an individual, a judgment of this sort would be impossible simply because there were so many events at the 2005 WSF and it was so difficult to have an overview. However, an assessment is also unnecessary in a realistic view of intercultural communication, a view that seems alien to Babels representatives and WSF organisers – for reasons systematically associated with the nature of that world whose need for change has given rise to the forum.

3. It is not without irony that the World Social Forum, since Mumbai and the European Social Forums, has fully sanctioned a commodity-producing society by opting for Babels. Like many other objects, tasks and skills in a totally capitalised society, interpreting is also a commodity. Owing to various circumstances, the commodification of interpreting only became fully apparent in the closing years of the twentieth century. Symptoms of the continuing commodification of conference interpreting can easily be recognised in a decline in quality, the collapse of the standards laboriously developed in the first half of the last century and the 1950s after the triumphal march of simultaneous interpreting (which presuppose the survival of oddments of the old European educational tradition), the increasing superficiality of education geared towards immediate use and/or abuse in business, the sheer ignorance of many new interpreters, and the generally apparent pragmatism of language use. The Forum organisers and the Babels group have unintentionally confirmed this state of affairs, whose abolition is part of their agenda. They rightly preach alternative ways of working and organising which in many ways tie in with craft methods of production and yet, with strange inconsequence, fail to recognise the established craft standards of interpreting.

4. The criticism of commodities and commodity-shaped thinking at which the Forum, understandably, is continually aiming not only requires panel and plenary speakers who attempt to “emerge from their self-[or externally-] imposed immaturity” (Kant), but also linguistically and intellectually mature interpreters. Here professionalism becomes unavoidable, for it is the best interpreters of the old school who are needed. In truth, too much is expected at the Forum not only of the volunteers from Babels (nomen est omen) heard babbling here and there, but also of today’s conference interpreters. Incomparably more is demanded here than in trade and industry congresses or the increasingly banal political discussions which an experienced conference interpreter can master by reeling off the appropriate phrases. Not only is a good mastery of active and passive languages and a literary upbringing required, but also a comprehensive general education, intellectual curiosity and an ability to make connections between different fields of knowledge. In short, it is necessary to be able to follow a speaker’s train of thought, which always entails reflection and is complemented by anticipation. The Forum does not need interpreters who, like the bourgeois graphically described by the young Gramsci, can afford to be ignorant because “the bourgeois world operates of its own motion” (“Ignorance is also a privilege of the bourgeoisie, as are idleness and sloth”). It requires the best interpreters. These are a dying breed, but there still exist a few anachronistic representatives who refuse to give in to the rampant parrot language and think it important to understand their speakers and interpret them as if language barriers did not exist. Technique is not even their most obvious attribute. More important is their ability to listen keenly.

It is a truism that high-quality speakers and thinkers – and the Forum brings together many, in addition to less reality-bound proponents of what are sciences only in the academic sense, as well as believers in the Apocalypse, chiliasts and esoterics of various stamps – cannot be convincingly interpreted by inferior interpreters. What is the point of having high-quality meetings with top-class speakers if the interpretation is going to be amateurish and puerile? What is the point of Babels generally, which is mostly able to mobilise only goodwill rather than genuine competence?

In its Charter, Babels trustingly assumes the existence of linguistic competence among the members of its network. Many Babels members do at least have this competence in their mother tongue, but this in itself does not qualify them to interpret, any more than linguistic competence in two or more languages qualifies anyone to interpret. However, what this competence means in such a network can be gathered from two areas of the Babels website. Let the interested reader merely consult the sections Babelitos Porto Alegre and First Experience as Interpreter. The comments of the four volunteers clearly demonstrate that they need intensive coaching in their mother tongues and that they should be urgently recommended to take collegium logicum (Goethe, Faust I, 1911) and other collegia. We can only guess at their linguistic competence in their foreign language(s). At any rate, Babels seems to bear a considerable resemblance to Mario Monicelli’s film For Love and Gold (L’Armata Brancaleone, 1966). The crusaders are not quite sure where they are going, but they continue all the same.

5. In the midst of the “immense accumulation of commodities” (Marx) that is also the Forum, good interpreters are a scarce commodity. With this in mind, the Forum organisers ought in future to remember the optimal interpreting solution of the first three world social forums. The chief interpreter was then Sérgio Xavier Ferreira (Rio de Janeiro), who judiciously and far-sightedly enlisted the best and most experienced conference interpreters in Brazil. Experienced and less experienced interpreters were skilfully put together into teams. The active/passive language combination was also taken into account, and wherever basically problematic relay interpreting through a common language proved unavoidable, professional interprètes-pivots were provided. This solution took into account one of the Forum’s main aims, namely the concern of the audience, the speakers and the organisers to reach an understanding on the subject of “another world.” The thoroughly traditional interpreters enlisted from 2001 to 2003 for the central events were thus obstetricians and midwives to a many-voiced discourse. By its very nature, Babels cannot put together any comparable interpreting teams.

The predominantly bad interpreting at the 2005 WSF was emphasised in no uncertain terms by Maricruz González Cárdenas (Quito/Ecuador), a Babels volunteer, at the debriefing session for the volunteer interpreters on the morning of 31 January. Her lapidary statement reveals an awareness of the problems that seems to escape Babels and the organisers of the 2005 WSF:

“In my opinión this experience was a disaster. In Quito the interpretation was bad, but here it was even worse. The problem was that while we had professionals here, we also had others without any experience. Babels volunteers have come here because we want another world. But how much money did Babels and Nomad spend? We didn’t come here for the breakfast but to provide a quality service. A proposal: a majority of the volunteers should be professionals. I heard the translation of a Babels volunteer on television and it was terrible. We have a duty to provide quality service. Limiting our goals is something else. We can’t do everything. As for the question of horizontality, here it led to chaos. We need people to be accountable.” (original in Spanish, translation Luigi Luccarrelli)

The testimony of a Chilean volunteer, the conference interpreter Jorge Melo Alarcón, provided to Babels on 19 February, is no less direct.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the meeting on the 31st (my flight was leaving the same morning). Nonetheless, here are two or three points that we should take into account.

What image did we leave with the people and organisations attending the conference? In my opinion, a bad one. Sad to say, but we (the Babels interpreters) were the visible parties and political actors that didn’t fully comply with their mission.

A certain number of the “interpreters” in Porto Alegre actually spent much of their time seeing the sights and did not even fulfill the basic requirement of being in the meeting room as scheduled. Worse yet, many were not even present in Porto Alegre. It wasn’t mere coincidence that the same faces could be seen in meeting after meeting."

Quality of the interpretation

In many cases it was inadequate. The “interpreters’ did not have the linguistic skills needed to interpret. Responsibility for this lies with the regional coordinators who didn’t have enough time to choose wisely. In fact, anyone who studies or works in interpretation is aware that the job is not so easy, although many who can communicate in a foreign language think that alone means they are able to interpret.

The Babels registration form should be changed

Those who don’t really know what it means to interpret may overestimate their ability.

And to end (for now), I believe that interpretation should be handled by professionals and many of the problems that came up in Porto Alegre were due to the fact that people had the best will but were just not equipped to handle the task of interpreting.

Pastelero a tus pasteles…” (original in Spanish, translation Luigi Luccarelli)

Pastelero a tus pasteles. Não vá o sapateiro além do chinelo. Cordonnier, mêle-toi de ta pantoufle! Cobbler, stick to your last. Schuster, bleib’ bei deinem Leisten. Or, in Brazilian Portuguese: Cada macaco em seu galho (every monkey to his branch).

Proverbs are often more eloquent than perorations.

6. The Nomad transmission technology is well below normal contemporary standards. Its supporters, who railed against the non-existent monopoly of equipment-hire companies, made a virtue out of necessity according to the fallacy “alternative, therefore better”. People using this argument come unintentionally close to the position of those who want to overcome globalisation by returning to the Stone Age. I myself became acquainted with Nomad on the morning of 23 January at a talk by Robert Kurz (Nuremberg) and found it unsatisfactory. Without a long-standing knowledge of many of Robert Kurz’s publications and the classics to which he alluded, I would have come to grief. The equipment reminded me at best of the technical standards of the late 1970s. I cannot imagine how young interpreters or amateurs can work with it. I also heard that VH, a local event-technology firm whose quality standards are universally recognised in Brazil, had to supply 150 mixers when Nomad technology broke down or was not available on account of inadequate organisation. The Forum organisers ought in future to remember, in the interests of the audience, speakers and interpreters (i.e. in everyone’s interests) that comfortable listening is a basic condition for successful interpreting. They should focus less on immature, nomadic and randomly functioning technology and more on equipment perfected by sedentary transmission specialists over the past few decades. In Brazil, moreover, such equipment is hired out not by monopolists but by small and medium-sized enterprises. The quality is variable but at any rate better than Nomad.

Departing from this “knowledge drawn from experience” (“saber de experiência feito”, Camões) the educationalist Salete Valesan, a member of the Paulo Freire Institute and the Organising Committee for the 2005 World Social Forum believes: “Firstly we must pay closer attention to provision of the interpretation and the equipment, since they did us serious damage. Not because it was really the wrong option to have chosen. By taking this option, we ensured that the process was being driven by networks and movements, that the equipment was made by the networks and the movements, and that the network of volunteer interpreters became stronger. However, we had technical and production problems which unfortunately detracted from the first two days of the event. The moral is that we must forestall these problems in future. We must take care that the problem does not continue right up to the event. We must anticipate...”

(Original in Portuguese, translation Peter Naumann and Sarah Brickwood)

How is Mrs. Valesan qualified to judge the reasoning, or lack of it, behind this “option”? Her argument (which we are doing her a kindness to term as such) is not thought through and contains a fallacy that has been chewed over ad nauseam by Babels members and WSF organisers: in a nutshell, if Nomad had worked, then the simultaneous interpreting would have worked as well. This pseudo-argument reveals an almost animistic belief in the power of technology. Of course good simultaneous interpreting demands high-quality equipment, adequate conference rooms, etc. But it is still the interpreters, rather than the technology, that make the difference. Amateurs cannot qualify as interpreters through good technology, as if they were nothing other than equipment interfaces. And if the technology fails, the interpreters must just leave the booth and interpret consecutively. This is what happened at the World Social Forum, with the widely reported disastrous consequences. In some respects, an interpreter can prove his ability better through consecutive interpreting than in the anonymity of a booth4: he acts for the speaker much more comprehensively than in the booth, is if anything a second speaker and sometimes becomes the speaker’s more effective double. He must understand the discourse, otherwise he will be incapable of digesting the speaker’s ideas and reconstructing them in the other language. It is no coincidence that some of the most renowned interpreting schools in the world regard the learning of consecutive technique as a prerequisite for successful simultaneous interpreting.

7. The decision of the organisers to abandon the Catholic University conference rooms and other suitable meeting rooms in favour of the tent city on the edge of the lagoon must be considered a step backwards in principle, not only from the standpoint of the hard-working interpreters but also with regard to the legitimate interests of speakers and audience. The curiously integrating effect of the tent city cannot be denied. However, the impossibility of sound-insulating the tents could have been anticipated. It was also very hot in the tents, which gave the organisers the unfortunate idea of installing large fans. These produced a noise reminiscent of an aircraft hangar, which encouraged the sound technicians to set the loudspeakers very loud. Interpreters and audience were inundated with superfluous sound, which required a considerable portion of their powers of concentration to shut out and deal with and which ran counter to the ideal of attentive/relaxed listening. Many speakers confused passion with volume, and inexperienced moderators also failed to instruct them as to how to use the microphone properly. For the non-professional members of Babels, these working conditions were an additional, unreasonable strain, which, to be fair, must be taken into account when judging their inadequate performance.

Future world social forums should seriously consider which is more important: integration of participants under adverse sound conditions (hindering integration from the outset, since the latter also presupposes speech communication) or facilitation of communication without unreasonable noise exposure (communication being the precondition for integration). Since integration does not necessarily depend on a concentration of tents on one spot but speech communication always requires good organisation, this decision should not be difficult.

8. Although they claim that the language issue should not be treated as a “mere economic question”, Babels and the Forum organisers constantly raise the cost-effectiveness argument: professional interpreting is too expensive. The 2003 WSF spent some half a million US dollars for over 100 interpreters enlisted by Ibase/Rio de Janeiro. But even volunteers arriving from all quarters of the globe are not to be had free. The estimated 500+ babelitos, as Babels members refer to each other in their trendy puerility, and perhaps too with a vague premonition of their actual significance, cost US$ 200/day each. If this is correct, the new “quality” of interpreting at the 2005 WSF was a result of colossal misplanning and misdirected investment. An experienced consultant interpreter could have organised a smaller team of professional interpreters for less money (or a comparable amount, taking into account the growth of the forum), served more events at a higher standard and used the meagre resources more reasonably, thus making less go further.

Contrary to its own self-image, Babels works like advertisers, with simple rebranding, as demonstrated by the following quotation, which should be savoured: “Calling for volunteers is not a matter of 'costs' but of ‘investments’” (Assessing the language issue for the WSF 2005 in Porto Alegre). Costs cannot even be allowed to exist, and therefore it is suggested that they do not. If they did exist, with the new terminology we would talk about “hiring” rather than “calling” (for volunteers). But since they do exist, they are called investments. The reality has not changed but has been given another coat of paint. The medium is the message.

The alternative economy which the Forum has elected to anticipate has already abolished the exchange value of the “interpreter” commodity. But what about the use value – clearly tending to zero – of the babelitos? What could the audience make of their attempts at speech? How will future historians and archaeologists deal with the Forum’s “living memory” digitised by Nomad? What hermeneutic marathons by future volunteers (and what corresponding “investments”) will be required to transcribe the babbling and, with interpolations and conjectures, translate it into intelligible language before bequeathing it as a legacy to mankind?

The information that the Babels-organised economy of scarcity led to last-minute engagement of professional interpreters for some events at exorbitant fees well over the usual market rates also sets one thinking. Even in the different world experimentally anticipated by the Forum, the ruthless law of supply and demand has not yet lost its force: thanks to the combined efforts of the Forum organisers and their helpmates in Babels it has inevitably stabilised the free market economy and profiteering.

In Babels and the politics of language at the heart of Social Forum Julie Boéri and Stuart Hodkinson of Babels-UK refer to the “dubious politics and huge expense of hiring professional interpreters for the WSF in 2001 und 2002”. They fail to appreciate that capable interpreters constitute part of the infrastructure of a multilingual meeting in the same way as the buildings, transport logistics, reliable technology and many other things.

9. Babels representatives have put about a second pseudo-argument, which is being repeated parrot-fashion by many clueless people: conference interpreters paid for their services are not committed to the aims of the Forum and will only work for filthy lucre. The latter assertion has already been disproved by the accommodating attitude of the professional interpreters enlisted by Ibase/Rio de Janeiro for the first three years of the WSF. The interpreters worked for fees and under conditions that were not the best on the market. The standard was clearly better than in 2005. For the core languages (English, French, Spanish and possibly Portuguese) the Forum would be better served by professional interpreters. Where other languages are added, particularly in regional forums on other continents, the Forum should first endeavour to obtain professional interpreters and only mobilise networks such as Babels as a last resort. Persistent talk of the avarice and insufficient commitment of qualified professional interpreters clearly indicates a naïve idea of the nature of language communication, a lack of ability, or even outright resentment. However unwelcome this may be to the ideologues of militancy, they must understand that the political views of good conference interpreters are irrelevant to an assessment of the standard of their work. Good interpreters are attentive listeners, spectators of world history, and able to put their speakers, as well as themselves, into perspective. Without this ability to distance themselves and treat matters objectively they could not interpret properly, i.e. they could not place themselves at the disposal of a succession of speakers with varying world views and always retain their credibility.

Visitors to earlier forums in Porto Alegre may remember the exquisite Portuguese of the doyen of Brazilian conference interpreters, Carlos Peixoto de Castro (Rio de Janeiro), the sophisticated simplicity of Antônio Machado (Belo Horizonte), the tropically colourful yet very French clarté of Sieni Maria Campos (Rio de Janeiro), the cool virtuosity of Suzana Mizne (São Paulo), the conversational tone of Patrick Wuillaume (Rio de Janeiro), the structured brio of Sérgio Xavier Ferreira (Rio de Janeiro) and the discreet elegance of David Hathaway (Brasília). The interpreters, individually so different and here cited merely by way of example, represent quality and intelligible human speech as well as plurality and variety, which the Forum, for good reasons, is fighting to preserve. They provide an aural demonstration of what unalienated interpreting – interpreting with a human face – can achieve.

With the assertion, “We believe that translation in the WSF process is militancy,” the organisers and Babels have from the outset renounced the possibility of understanding translation and interpreting as (paid or unpaid) services that can be meaningfully judged only by criteria of professional competence. Like the substance of a belief, the assertion is impervious to rational analysis. This belief does not remove any obstacles to understanding between languages and the cultures behind them but by dint of constant repetition gives members of Babels the conviction of moral superiority with which incompetence can be splendidly concealed and the market reserve for the next Forum can already be legitimised.

10. Another basic reservation with regard to Babels concerns the dignity of these amateurs hastily turned interpreters. Is it actually permissible to put a living being capable of speech and therefore intelligent (zoon logon echon, in the canonical expression of Ancient Greece) in a situation in which, for lack of education, experience, talent or other qualities, that being will utter only scraps of thought, mutilated periods, or incoherent speech? Public speech makes a speaker visible (“Speak, that I may see Thee!” Hamann, 1762) but also exposes him. A person lacking self-command should not be placed too early in the glare of the stage lights or their dimmed reflection in the booth. The consequences could be deeply mortifying. This was not taken into account by Babels and the Forum organisers. They thoughtlessly sent the babelitos to the front and to the slaughter, although they could have foreseen their charges’ miserable failure. Gross negligence is the very least with which those responsible, who hide behind the façade of the horizontality that they have made into their agenda, can – and must – be charged.

The difficulties of interpreting between many languages and the arguments mustered by Babels “experts” and the Forum organisers can be brought together in the following thesis: Babels is not the solution but at best an incorrectly formulated problem. Without an awareness of the problems, which we can only hope that the Forum organisers will acquire, the ability to solve them will not materialise. Militancy and ultrazealous views are no guarantee of intelligence. But perhaps the Forum organisers will learn from their mistakes and will scatter Babels’ members abroad into their respective lands that they may not bring even more confusion upon the face of all the earth. This should be taken as a friendly suggestion, since Babels is already preparing its next coup, the First Mediterranean Social Forum (Barcelona, 16-19 June 2005). The call for volunteers has already sounded across the Internet. Soon the innocents, the dilettantes, the semi-professionals, the perfect fools and an army of the well-intentioned will again join the travelling circus and stage the next fiasco. How long, oh Babels, will you try our patience?

Peter Naumann is a conference interpreter, who has worked at the First, Second, Third and Fifth World Social Forums professionally and under professional conditions. Whilst assuming full responsibility for what he has written, the author would like to extend his sincere thanks to Mário Hage (São Paulo) for a reference and to his colleague Marten Henschel (Heidelberg) for invaluable suggestions on how to improve this contribution to the debate. A shorter German version of this article originally appeared on the weltsozialforum website, and a Portuguese version has been produced by the author himself on

The author is most grateful to Sarah Brickwood (Paris) for a sensitive translation befitting the style and intention of the original. Thanks are also due to the author’s Geneva colleagues Walter Keiser and Benoît Kremer for their clarifications and assistance in arranging publication.

1 BABELS: “Babels is a network of volunteer interpreters and translators. It was born from the process of the Social Forums, experimental meeting spaces for movements and organisations from different countries and regions. Without interlinguistic and intercultural communication these spaces could not exist.

Babels is made up of activists of all tendencies and backgrounds, united in the task of transforming and opening up the Social Forums. We work to give voice to peoples of different languages and cultures. We fight for the right of all, including those who don’t speak a colonial language, to contribute to the common work. We try to allow everyone to express themselves in the language of their choice. By increasing the diversity of contributions to the debate, we transform its outcome. [...]

The first European Social Forum was held in Florence, in November 2002. Just three months before this event, a self-organised process was started to find volunteer interpreters and translators for the forum. A considerable (though still insufficient) number of activist volunteer interpreters came together in these three months. This is how Babels was born.

Since then, Babels has been part of the European forums of Paris and London; of the 2004 WSF in Mumbai; of the FSA 2004 in Quito; and a series of smaller meetings such as thematic forums and assemblies (against the G8, against the war, forum of the fishing peoples...).” (From this site)

2 NOMAD: “In the WSF framework, Nomad proposes alternative techniques for equipping the conference rooms for simultaneous translation. There are two fundamental components to Nomads plans: voice transmission in conference rooms and digitalisation of voice signals, all of which will be done in keeping with the spirit of freeware: by collaboration and shared knowledge. These tasks involve working with:

  • FM radio transmitters
  • Audio equipment (mixer stations, cabling)
  • Electromagnetic transmission using “copper circles”
  • Software and computers (C language in Linux / Developing GUI interfaces / Experiences with processing digitalised sound)” (From this site)

“Nomad Interpreting Free Tools (NIFT)

NIFT reduces the costs, enables the debates and conferences to be broadcast via audio streaming in all the languages translated, and to archive and index, by speaker, the contents of these debates and conferences through different media, such as DVD, CD and websites.” (From this site)

3 “The choice between two public goods – language diversity on the one hand and communication at global forums on the other – could be resolved by provision of proper translation between the various languages. This costs money, which must be raised. But how is this possible, if you cannot and will not muster well-funded participants (as the World Economic Forum does)? We might consider levying a “tax on the linguistic seigniorage of English to facilitate global communication” (which we might call “taxa sobre a seigneuriage lingüística para a facilitaçao da comunicação global”, with the acronym Tax-Ascii). This could be a few cents on English-language publications, thus creating a fund that would be administered by UNESCO, since it is UNESCO’s task to protect humanity’s cultural heritage. This includes not only language diversity but also – in the light of globalisation – the establishment and facilitation of global communication. It is surely worth organising an international campaign to deal with the politics of translation politically as well. Nowhere is the need for means of communication between languages and cultures felt more urgently than at the World Social Forum.

Until this happens, all the participants in the World Social Forum will just have to improve their own language skills in order to be able to exchange views with other people from other countries with other political backgrounds.” (Elmar Altvater, Das große Treffen, available (in German) on weltsozialforum and RLS.

Let us at this point commemorate Hans Jacob (1896-1961), first Chief Interpreter at UNESCO, and first Vice-President and later President (1955-56) of AIIC, who worked in the UNESCO Secretariat from 1948 to 1956. Jacob’s reminiscences rank among the most distinguished memoirs of the first half of the twentieth century. He gives the following account of his work in UNESCO: “I was offered the opportunity [in 1947] of going to Mexico City as an interpreter at UNESCO’s Second General Conference. I gladly accepted. UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – is the successor to the League of Nations’ International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation. This organisation is, or ought to be, non-political, within the scope of its Constitution, finalised in London in 1946 with equal measures of idealism and illusion. I was UNESCO’s Chief Interpreter for almost nine years [...] I received an offer to join the UNESCO Secretariat, with its headquarters in Paris, as an interpreter and took up my position there in February 1948 [...] I was very happy in my post at UNESCO from 1948 to 1956. Under its first two Directors-General this international organisation, which is supposed to deal with the intellectual problems of humanity non-politically and whose Constitution states that the fate of the world’s inhabitants – war or peace – is determined “in the minds of men”, was feeling its way in a confused postwar world still suffering from wartime destruction. UNESCO is not as effective as many people would like, but it is far better than its reputation. Unfortunately in the calamitous McCarthy era the Americans tried to make UNESCO an anti-communist propaganda division of the United Nations.” (Hans Jacob, Kind meiner Zeit. Lebenserinnerungen, Cologne 1962, p. 283 f.)

4 On the last page of his memoirs, ending with the date and place (July 1959, Neuilly-sur-Seine), Hans Jacob writes: “The conference interpreter’s profession has become depersonalised and mechanised through the continuing inroads made by simultaneous interpreting. Congress and conference delegates might almost start to think that robots and machines were working in the booths rather than people” (ibid. p. 286). This is not just moving and significant testimony by an eminent colleague from the first half of the last century. Projected onto the current state of conference interpreting, Jacob’s statement – very much a product of its time – should at least make us reflect.

Recommended citation format:
Peter NAUMANN. "Babels and Nomad: Observations on the barbarising of communication at the 2005 W". May 27, 2005. Accessed May 29, 2020. <>.