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Paper presented at the Fourth Congress of ESLETRA

Translation and Commitment

Translated by  Machetera


In 1841, a young Karl Marx wrote the following: "Is the press free which degrades itself to the level of a trade? The writer, of course, must earn in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write to earn...The primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade."[1] As on so many other occasions, the German philosopher put his finger on the sore of a social problem that a century and a half later in our post modern world, has acquired the character of a universal plague.

Today, the dominant global means of communication (the mainstream media), whether radio, television, printed newspapers and magazines, or their virtual Internet equivalents, are in the hands of economic oligopolies, whose primary goal is profit, while information is relegated to a rhetorical pretext through which to achieve it. Its collusion with the different industries that buy space for advertising (often the medium and the message have the same owner), added to its opposition to any kind of political change that might cut short the power it exercises over its audience, turns the media pretension of being champions of press freedom into a fallacy.

In such circumstances, anyone who wishes to find a contrast to the disinformation with which we are passively bombarded, must actively seek out the so-called alternative media, which, by the mere fact of not being an industry, is much less visible and infinitely less powerful. In inverse proportion to the saying about dominant media, the end for alternative media is not profit, but press freedom.

Translation is perfectly integrated in this (dominant/alternative) bifurcated structure. For obvious reasons, one will understand that the model denounced by Marx in 1841 also repeats itself in this genre of writing (translation is a re-writing of other people's texts). In exchange for money, the dominant media give their translators texts that are objectively or subjectively favorable to their corporate point of view, while alternative media nurture activist translators who generally perform the work without pay in order to distribute counter-hegemonic texts. Of course, the dividing line between the two trenches is not as strict as the aforementioned quote would suggest: contamination exists, but it could be said without fear of error that the unequal confrontation between dominant and alternative media - today limited almost exclusively to the Internet arena - is an updated version of the class struggle.

Information as a Pretext in the Age of Neoliberalism

Throughout this paper I intend to highlight the economic, political and social implications of the journalism exercised by the dominant media (in which translation is included) in order to contrast it with the journalism and translation of alternative media or activists. In the first case, journalism is often a manipulative tool, with the clear objective of obtaining corporate profits; the second, to the contrary, is often a rhetorical combat weapon.

I'll start by quoting an article by the journalist Pascual Serrano, published on February 11, 2008 in the journal Público. The article in question was titled "From Censorship to Lies" [2] and in it, Serrano referred to several current examples of media disinformation. For the sake of brevity, I'll only quote a random example:  "A few months ago, the weekly Interviú published a report at its site where it claimed that Marcos Chávez, the Venezuelan President's brother, was the Commissioner General in the fight against drugs and crime in that country, and that a conversation recorded by Spanish police showed the drug lords to be pleased that the President's brother was directing the police (Nov. 19, 2007). Not only is this Marcos Chávez not the head of anti-drug efforts in Venezuela (he's head of police forensics), he's also not the brother of, nor does he have any relation to Hugo Chávez."

Summing up the different examples to which he alluded in his article, Serrano's conclusion, and again I'll quote it verbatim, was that "the lies in our communication media are constant, and what's worse, unpunished."

Continuing, Serrano commented on this impunity: "In dictatorships, the method to prevent citizens from being informed is censorship; preventing the distribution of news that displeases the powers that be. Now, the truth can be buried in a base of lies, so that the result is the same: the truth is hidden."

Pascual Serrano, who is what we might call a militant journalist, has focused some of his books on media lies. The two that he dedicated to media deceptions, nonsense and swindles are worth the read. In them, grouped by subject, he reviews all the aspects present in political and media life, from economy, education, racism, ecology and the Internet, to the geographic territories that have a given importance, such as Iraq, the United States, Palestine, Cuba or Venezuela, without leaving out the most sensitive affairs of our own country [Spain], such as the monarchy, security forces, the Church, or the judicial system. Through the pages of these books, with day to day examples taken from the national and international press, the misery and decay in the discourse of a large part of the political class, and the lies and manipulation of the majority of the media, are revealed.

At this point, it's worth delving a bit deeper into the concept of censorship pointed out above by Serrano; a concept which suffered a metamorphosis with the political change in our country; from the previous dictatorship to that in which we live today and call democracy. For this, I'll refer to another enlightening article by the philosopher Santiago Alba Rico, "In Support of Censorship," published in the alternative newspaper La República [4], in which he begins incisively, by quoting the nineteenth century English poet and critic, Matthew Arnold, according to whom, "if the newspapers that one reads can say what they like, one tends to believe that one is well informed." That's exactly what's happening here: our newspapers can say what they like, with impunity.

But are we really well informed? I don't believe so, because censorship continues to exist in democracy; it's the same as in dictatorship, but dressed in different clothing. In Alba Rico's words, censorship which before was done by the state, has now been privatized and is called "freedom of the press" or "freedom of information."

Why do I say that freedom of information is, in reality, freedom of censorship? Well, because according to Alba Rico, "certain bodies, certain institutions, certain collectives, receive the sovereign right from the state to publicly censor a nearly unlimited number of voices." They only publish those that are in their interest, never those who dissent from their informative line. In other words, in democracy, "...the State delegates the right of censorship, not to the hands of free citizens or, in the extreme, to parties and civil collectives, but to the huge multinationals which are those who, directly or indirectly, edit the newspapers and program the television channels. The same who decide who will eat and what we will eat, who will drink and what we will drink, who will be killed and with what weapon, who may go to school and what we will study, who may have a house and where we will live, who may wear shoes and how we will dress, are those who decide who may speak and what we will hear."  And read.

The so-called free Western press, owned by a privileged few, is based on three points. The first is economic profitability, i.e; the dominant media must be profitable because they are an industry, as the ever clear-sighted Karl Marx feared a century and a half ago. It's worth remembering here, that every newspaper gets 50% of its revenue from advertising. Advertising was the great invention of the bourgeois press in nineteenth century England, in tandem with the development of the Industrial Revolution. The media for the wealthy classes began to include advertising, thereby practically sinking the media defending the working class, as these, in order to survive on an equal footing, but without the 50% income from advertising, were forced to double their price. Competition under such conditions, now as then, with the rich supported by a press defending their class interests at a price half of that for the working class press, is a real fallacy.

The second point on which the dominant or hegemonic communication media are based is that of shareholders, for whom such media had better have content that results in dividends. It's worth noting that today, the media no longer belong as before, to businesses dedicated exclusively to communication, but rather, to diversified business groups which may include anything from construction businesses to automobile businesses, agribusiness, church groups or even weapons manufacturers, such as in France: the three main dailies in Paris, Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro, are in the hands of the Lagardere and Dassault groups; arms manufacturers. This detail, relative to who owns the media, has even altered their economic characteristics in respect to the previous point, profitability, since the groups of business owners may even permit the media to run at a deficit, as long as they help maintain the "public image" of the business, which can occupy itself earning money in more productive areas.

The third point on which hegemonic media is based is that of advertisers. We've seen that they contribute 50% of the total income for the media, but this contribution has a counterpart that far exceeds the simple act of advertising a product. In other words, it's not just a matter of encouraging readers to drink a sweetened product or buy a particular automobile, but that the news published in the media is edited with a clear or subliminal bias favorable to the business interests of its advertisers. It's enough for me to cite one typical example of this subliminal bias: in May of 2006, the same month that El País fiercely criticized Bolivia's decision to nationalize its oil and gas resources and demand a greater percentage of revenue from multi-nationals such as Repsol, this Spanish company financed a new suite of interior decoration for the newspaper. The question arises: What does Repsol have to do with the interior decoration of our homes? Nothing. It was simply an exchange of favors: you pay for the cost of the furniture collection and I will publish news favorable to you. "Today for me, and tomorrow for you." [5] I'll give one last example, this one very selective: in case you didn't know, I'll tell you that the Internet newspaper of the extreme right-wing Libertad Digital gets its financing from advertisers such as Endesa, Gas Natural, El Corte Inglés, Telefónica, Iberdrola, BBVA, Santander Central Hispano, Ibercaja and CEPSA.[6]

Translation and Commitment

The information from the dominant media, as we've seen, is only a rhetorical pretext for a whole range of underlying business. Under the conditions I have just described, one wonders whether journalism as an attempt to communicate reality is possible today. In the dominant media, of course not, since what they do is conceal the real world and create a new reality made to their measure. [7] In the alternative media, yes, definitely. Once again I quote Pascual Serrano:  "This is not to turn journalism into a pamphlet, but to say the truth loudly and give a voice to those without a voice, condemned to ostracism by a miserable communication model at the service of the market."

The title I chose for this paper is "Translation and Commitment." What does translation have to do with what I've just outlined? Well, quite a lot actually. If, as outlined here, we accept that the dominant media, those that are omni-present in the television screens in our homes, on the radio airwaves, printed publications and the Internet; if those media, as I say, don't tell the truth, even by mistake, because the news is not their priority, but rather, the particular interests of the business, then we must seek other media that practice a journalism uncontaminated by money. This journalism is found in the alternative media of the Internet, which functions as a counter-offensive and deconstructs the false reality of the dominant media. Well then, it must be very clear that the spinal column of the alternative media is translation. Without it, very little would have stuck.

The functioning of alternative media is characterized by something that lies at the antipodes of the dominant media, and that is that it often functions with zero budget. No-one pays, no-one charges, everything is done in a voluntary manner. There's no advertising, no shareholders nor multinationals to influence the information transmitted. Its pages are nurtured by militants who've found in the Internet a way to counteract, at least partially, the influence of the dominant media. It is people who every day dedicate a part of their free time to the search for the truth in the news.

The current alternative media was born and has grown along with the Internet and has flourished thanks to activist translation. As I am a part of two collectives in which I've performed translations for years, I believe I'm in a position to unveil the intricacies of their operation. I refer of course, to the dean of alternative media in Spanish, Rebelión (www.rebelion.org) and from more recent times, Tlaxcala (www.tlaxcala.es).

Rebelión came to light twelve years ago now and, little by little, has become the medium of reference in Spanish for the left. It functions like a daily, and each new edition appears on the Internet at 7:00 a.m., Madrid time. Every month, its pages receive between two and three million visits.

I only began to be a part of the Rebelión collective some eight years ago now, but I know that in the beginning there was only one translator, who can still be found in the ranks; a Chilean-German who had just retired and began to do a minimum of two daily translations of counter-hegemonic articles published in the English language media. That's how it was, in Rebelión's heroic era, how Spanish language readers began to know firsthand and no later than two or three days after the original publication, the journalistic texts of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Robert Fisk, James Petras and an entire series of writers and journalists that until then had been confined to their own language and books which sometimes, but not always, appeared in translation years after their initial publication.

As always tends to happen, that early work soon attracted militants from diverse latitudes who began to offer voluntary translations, such that when I arrived, I found an already formed group of eight or ten who were translating not only from English but also from French and some from German. Today, twelve years after its creation, Rebelión has a team of more than 40 translators, from more than ten different countries, all connected by the Internet, and publishes an average of 150 translated articles a month; the majority from English, it's true, but also from French, Portuguese, Italian, German and Russian. Thanks to them, our readers are well-aware, for example, of what's really going on in the Middle East: they know very well who the aggressor is in the Israel-Palestine conflict, because a good part of the news comes directly from the Occupied Territories and is written by those suffering the occupation; our readers have learned to circumvent the propaganda of Zionism that controls the dominant media; our readers also know first-hand what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan; they receive news from Africa, written directly by Africans and translated for Rebelión, in contrast to the neo-colonial reporting written by Europeans with superiority complexes that tend to serve the dominant media.

Not all the alternative translators are professionals. In fact, the majority are amateurs. Given that the alternative media is nurtured by activists at least more interested in the transmission of the news than in its perfection or beautiful language, and moreover, the rapidity with which they are done often makes the translations works that can be improved, this reality prompted the establishment of an almost routine system of revision, which has solved the problem.

In a system such as this, where everyone works in a disinterested way, it's not possible to establish universal quality standards, but should those be necessary, at least ten percent of the translators and revisers are professional writers. In this way, over the last three or four years, the dominant media has nothing on the grammatical quality of the texts translated for Rebelión and our publication can pride itself on having introduced into Spanish a good handful of authors that otherwise would have continued semi-unknown in our language, such as Michel Chossudovsky, Gilad Atzmon, Khalid Amayreh, René Naba and Iman Jamás, among others. Writers who as victims of "democratic" censorship cannot even hint at being published in El País, El Mundo or ABC, just to cite a few of the dominant media.

And now I'll turn to the second medium to which I belong, Tlaxcala (www.tlaxcala.es), the network of translators for linguistic diversity, which represents an international twist in respect to Rebelión, for if Rebelión is an exclusively Spanish language medium, Tlaxcala is multilingual.

As I've said on other occasions, everything began in a casual way three years ago. I had just finished a long interview with Gilad Atzmon, a musician and activist ex-Jew who left Israel fifteen years ago in order to dedicate himself to the defense of the Palestinian people and a deconstruction of Zionism from a universal position. As a result of this, it was he who brought me into a small Internet forum where such issues were discussed. The exchanges in this forum, of course, were in English and the truth is that they helped me delve deeply into Zionism's terrible details.

One day it occurred to me to send this forum the URL for a new Spanish translation I'd done of an article by Atzmon and we'd just published in Rebelión. To my surprise, one of the members of the forum said to me - in English of course - that as a Mexican he could revise my Spanish translations if I so desired. I knew then, that there were two of us Spanish speakers in the forum. The rest were British, U.S. Americans, Arabs, a German, a Russian, and I don't remember what else. I responded that my problem was not the need for someone to revise my Spanish, but the other way round, to find someone who could eliminate the hispanicisms from my translations from Spanish to English, and I took advantage of the opportunity to proclaim my conviction about the historical use of imperial languages as weapons of colonization and to indicate the enormous existent disproportion between translations going from English to other languages as opposed to other languages being translated into English.

To my surprise, considering that I was among anglophones, not a single person made any kind of annoyed comment whatsoever; rather, everyone agreed with me. Those emails which happened in 2005, were the seed of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. Five of the members of that forum, the Mexican, an Italian, a Palestinian, a U.S. American, and I, were the founding nucleus of Tlaxcala. A few days after this incident, thanks to the network of contacts that we all already had, Tlaxcala had more than twenty members; French, Spanish, Latin Americans, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Canadians, etc., who began to translate to and from six languages, articles contrary to conventional thought that had begun to appear in alternative media.

It all happened very quickly, so quickly that in a few months Tlaxcala's name began to crop up in the Internet and the number of our member translators tripled without any effort whatsoever; our working languages grew and our texts began to appear on sites in the four continents. On February 21, 2006, just three months after our birth as a group, we officially inaugurated the Tlaxcala website, with our multilingual Manifesto, which explains our idea; opposition to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and racism, and in favor of universal equality between all languages and cultures, as well as the reasons we chose this exotic name of Mexican origin.

Our trajectory since then has been ascendant. To date, we've produced in less than three years, 5,000 texts and helped disseminate the work of Palestinian, African, Italian, Latin American, Iranian, Iraqi, Brazilian and other writers, previously unknown or limited to their own linguistic arenas. Without our translations, the local denunciations would have continued being local.

At present we are associated with other translating networks, and the prospects of expansion, of trying to neutralize the corporate media's disinformation with counter-information, continue to grow. The view is toward a world in which citizens may know the what, why and how behind the political acts taking place daily.
It's a long march, replete with difficulties; a march which had a beginning and does not yet have the end in sight; but the objective of another, more just world in solidarity, is worth it.

At the moment I say these words, we are translating to and from 14 languages: Spanish, French, English, German, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Catalan, Arabic, Swedish, Farsi, Russian, Polish and Romanian. It's true that another world is possible, but only if communication is possible between humanity's 5,000 languages, on the basis of respect and mutual exchange, for to translate is, as José Martí said, is to trans-think, and whoever thinks cannot be deceived. Thank you.


1. According to Wenceslas Roces's venerable Spanish translation.  
4. La República, No. 0, May 1, 2008. Available electronically at:
http://www.attacmadrid.org/d/5/041116060319.php   7. http://www.pascualserrano.net/noticias/otro-periodismo-tambien-es-posible/

Source: http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=67464

Original article published on 16 May, 2008

About the author

Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity and editor of the blog http://machetera.wordpress.com/. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, translator and reviser are cited.

URL of this article on Tlaxcala:

STORMING BRAINS : 19/05/2008