Between the two of us, we have done free and rarely paid translation work for at least 40 years, including for “movements” — horizontalist, anarchist, abolitionist, mutual aid, etc.
Reflecting upon the generally monolingual nature of the above types of groups in the USA (in our limited experiences), the almost consistent tendency for translators to burn out given the general lack of practice in supporting language justice and translators, even if it means financially, and the need for better attempts to build language justice, we would like to share the following recommendations.
Hopefully this serves as a useful spark, which is all that we aspire to do at this point in time, given the fact that we are in the same situation that many translators are–translation work cannot be the main focus in our daily life even though it can easily occupy 20-50% of our week. We hope other people who translate could enrich such conversation with better recommendations and standards.
(1) Self-organize and practice self-management. Meet with other translators separately from the organization or people you translate with to discuss the issues we and the people we translate for face, and discuss possible solutions.
In our experience, you must be very careful about mentioning these issues around affluent, white, white-passing, or “able-bodied” people (including abolitionists, anarchists, and other anti-capitalists) where translators are a numerical or ethnic minority. Such folks have been quickest to deny our experiences, needs, or attempts to even start meaningful conversation about this.
You can reach out to us, but you do not need to. Definitely don’t wait on our response to act in the interests of developing language justice.
(2) Consider unionizing and/or building/joining a translators co-op, whether you translate for a volunteer group or have to translate in realms of blatant exploitation.
Bear in mind a successful workers union doesn’t need to be government-recognized (“the NLRA/NLRB path”). And people don’t have to make unions or worker co-ops from scratch1 . They can join existing ones or be an expansion of some part of the worker co-op ecosystem. But we shouldn’t be afraid to lean on existing unions and co-ops who value our autonomy to learn how to make new, independent ones.
(3) Pass an agreement(s) in writing that supports translators in general and whom you work with to organize autonomously from the group you’re in, including making a worker cooperative or unionizing; and for translators to withhold work, strike, and boycott, even against your organization, as their conscience seems fit. By “organize autonomously” we mean for groups to help translators to not feel guilty or hyper-selfish for speaking up in ways that clash with monolinguistic cultural rhythms or for putting more space between them and the group’s membership or work to figure out how to meet their own needs or how to improve polylingual practices, even if this means they must go as far as to leave the group to better do this.
(4) Generate agreements to pay money for some or all translation work. We should be very mindful to consider paying local translators–at least offer them the opportunity to get some pay for some fraction of their work in situations where everyone is volunteering. In a regular business, they should be supported to get paid for at least all hours of work in addition to other conditions–not just these pitiable translation bonuses or stipends companies sometimes give. For volunteer efforts, this shift should be met with this caution: if money is going to be doled out, consideration should be given to pay those who have translated so much throughout the years without ever receiving a penny.
When there is not enough local capacity to translate, especially if the translation job is difficult, at least some paid translation work can be done by a worker co-op like interpreters.coop. But before reaching out, if you have translators who’ve helped you out for free, be sure to offer them the opportunity to translate for similar pay. And if they cannot help you but want to or could use the money, consider providing some meaningful reciprocity with them for the reasons mentioned in the above paragraph. We wouldn’t say no to retro-stipends.
We should also welcome supporting translators to get ongoing training and peer support from translators experienced in other ways.
(5) Create an “offers list” from your group for other ways you can support translators and consider doing an offers and needs activity. These are potential substitutions or supplements to pay. Kolanutcollab.org may be able to help you learn how to do this.
Such an activity could be the group setting aside an hour for members to do a round robin to discuss things in their life that they need help with or could offer to its members and under what conditions (barter, free, pay, etc.). These could be skills, insights, access to resources, labor, etc. Here’s a list of examples of what people can offer or express needs for.
This activity might result in giving very needed support to all members that was previously lacking.
(6) Set aside at least 5% of all your group’s income or its annual budget to support translators in one or more of the ways mentioned in this document or in ways that translators you work with recommend. That 5% might end up being a return on itself and more!
(7) If you don’t have such funds, integrate frequent fundraising into your work. We ourselves are going to be approaching groups with one or more shirts we designed and/or printed to assist groups to fundraise for language justice, and to support each other and some translators we are in closer community with.
(8) Scale back work in your group. Don’t be embarrassed that you do not have capacity to do many things, including having discussions and making agreements about language justice. Be proud to slow down and develop new, subversive rhythms to talk about inclusiveness in your group and/or for other spheres of life.
(9) Respect limits to translation capacity. Even where adequate compensation is available, someone may not be able to translate for you by your preferred deadline, or at all. There are many factors that affect our capacity.
(10) Special consideration should be given to supporting the revival or preservation of languages endangered by genocide and colonialism, even if this does not benefit the short-term or immediate/parochial interests of a group.
(11) Support translators to participate. A person translating is more than a tool for increasing participation. We should be supported as translators, so we can participate, too.
(12) Decrease translators’ workloads in other areas–or have that conversation with them and be prepared to accommodate.
(13) If doing live translation, there should be at least two or three translators for each language to swap each other out.
(14) Consider the special insights that translators might have for the direction that a group ought to go. Of course, translators should never replace the voices of others.
(15) It would be nice if within the region someone or some horizontal group, ideally translators themselves, could hold a list–perhaps private, public or both–of horizontal groups who’ve taken any of the above measures and in what way. This would be even better if this could somehow combine and pool support.
Header image by ResearchLEAP. CC BY 4.0
Armando Desmadre, Christopher Preciado (2023). Recommendations for Practicing Language Justice. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/recommendations-practicing-language-justice