Found in Translation

Last week, I said I’d share the other thing I did at the shoulda-been-2020-but-there-was-a-pandemic-so-it-was-2022-instead “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference. And so here it is. The “Giulia” who gets mentioned is my co-panelist, Giulia Pelillo-Hestermeyer, who only lacks a full name in my talk because she had spoken immediately before me, and the live audience presumably knew who I meant. Unmentioned in my talk, but still lovely to share a virtual spotlight with for 90 minutes or so, was our other co-panelist, John Clarke.

Found in Translation: Black Lives Matter, Minneapolis, and Heidelberg

It’s a cliche that things get lost in translation. But, despite it being a cliche, there’s an important kernel of truth there. Concepts that make perfect sense to native speakers of language X have no clear or simple analogue in language Y, and even the most careful efforts to take the connotations and nuances that X-speakers find obvious and explain those to Y-speakers will still fall short. As Umberto Eco once wrote, translation is the art of saying almost the same thing . . . only he wrote that in Italian, rather than English. And while I fully trust Giulia’s translation of Eco’s words (thanks to her for that), I am also sure that there’s something in the original Italian that doesn’t travel across the linguistic divide.

That cliche focuses our attention on the “lossy” aspects of translation. And while those are real, what I want to do today is to invert that cliche, and focus instead on the valuable things that we can find in practices of translation. Before I go any further, though, I want to be clear about two important points.

1. I’m not primarily concerned with the most literal forms of translation: i.e., the bridges that get built across linguistic divides when someone produces, say, an English version of an Italian book, or Mandarin subtitles for a Nigerian film. Rather, I am concerned with a broader sense of the term: i.e., the translation of practices and feelings and beliefs, not just words; and translation across contexts and cultures, not just languages.

2. I’m not going to say much today about the most obvious benefits of translation: i.e., the gains to be found in having access to (almost) the same things that people from other linguistic and cultural contexts do. I don’t want to minimize those benefits, or pretend they’re not important. But that’s exceptionally low hanging fruit.

[On to the paper proper.]

In a keynote address she gave at the very first Crossroads conference in Tampere in 1996, Ien Ang threw down a gauntlet for cultural studies that I am not sure we have ever fully taken up:

“To counter the ghettoization of localized knowledges we need more, not less, encounters between disparate local knowledges; that is, we need to increase traffic through the crossroads . . . . We need to take the challenge of living in the borderlands more, not less, seriously because, frankly, I think we have no choice. In this increasingly interconnected and interdependent globalized world[,] we can all be said to live . . . in metaphorical if not literal borderlands, although of course not all in the same borderlands.”

Like Ang, I think that we need more “encounters between disparate local knowledges.” And this is part of what first led me into the collaborative project with Giulia that is the background for the stories my argument is built around. It’s what put me on a plane from the United States to Germany in early March 2020 for what was supposed to be a brief escape from the tail end of a Minnesota winter and an opportunity to do some set-up work for a course Giulia and I hoped to co-teach in Heidelberg that summer. Then the pandemic erupted, and my 12-day visit became a more open-ended residency that wound up lasting for 9 months . . .

. . . but I’m getting ahead of my tale. Back to translation.

Putting a slight twist on a concept that Larry Grossberg has often claimed to be at the heart of cultural studies, I want to suggest that certain moments of translation function as a process of radical recontextualization, and that these moments are ones that cultural studies needs to find (or create) more often. These are moments that are especially rich both with respect to improving our understanding of the world and with respect to making productive interventions that (hopefully) will make the world a less oppressive place for more people.

As we originally planned it, the course that Giulia and I wound up teaching in Heidelberg that summer might have been an example of the kind of translation work I’m interested in here. This was a graduate seminar, taught in English, that attempted to build bridges between our respective bodies of knowledge around the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration, as well as between Anglophone versions of cultural studies and Deutschophone versions of Kulturwissenschaft(en) — which I had come to learn (as Eco might say) are almost the same thing. Some of this was material I’d taught before in the US. But in Germany, I found that much of it required extra translation work to make it intelligible to our students. To be sure, US students don’t always have a nuanced understanding of the cultural and historical contexts that gave rise to the readings I assign them — pedagogy is always a kind of translation work, even when everyone speaks the same language and belongs to the same national culture — but the gaps that needed to be filled in for our students in Germany were much larger and more complicated.

Ultimately, though, what guaranteed that our course served as an example of translation as radical re-contextualization was another major news event that disrupted our original plans: the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and the weeks of protests that followed in its wake. This wasn’t simply a big news story: it was a big news story that involved most of the major issues at the core of our course. More than that, it was a big news story taking place in the city that I’ve called home since 2004, and in neighborhoods that I knew very well. In these awkward circumstances, I found myself simultaneously occupying the position both of translator and also . . . whatever the word is (if English has a graceful word for this, I don’t know it) for the recipient of a translation. I was both the “native” informant trying to explain Black Lives Matter, the US racial formation, and the history of Minneapolis-area police officers killing unarmed citizens to a range of different audiences in Germany . . . but I was also the audience for multiple moments of solidarity and/or uptake of Black Lives Matter, reinflected to fit the German context.

What I wound up trying to translate for our students was, I think, a process of radical recontextualization in at least three ways.

1. I needed to provide context — with respect to both the US as a whole and to Minneapolis more specifically — to help them understand the long histories of police brutality against unarmed people of color in the US, and do so in ways that simultaneously conveyed the specificity of the problem (e.g., what makes the US different and unique) and the universality of the problem (e.g., how/why what was happening in the US was (almost) the same thing that was happening in Germany and the EU).

2. I needed to destabilize their understandings of the news stories they were seeing — stories that used racially loaded frames to describe the protests — and press them to think more critically about the institutions producing such narratives . . . while I also needed to balance out that critique with the recognition that, thanks to the pandemic, I was also only able to “witness” what was happening in the streets of Minneapolis via mediated accounts of various sorts.

3. I needed to disrupt their deeply felt impulse (desire(?)) to make sense of the events unfolding on their screens in “properly” neutral, objective, rational, scientific ways — but without simply sliding to the opposite end of the spectrum and producing visceral, ranting, raging, screamingly ferocious outbursts of pain and fury. This involved a kind of translation between different affective registers: the emotional and the intellectual, the anecdotal and the academic, the personal and the political.

Everything I’ve said to this point makes it sound like the translation work I’m interested in works in one direction: i.e., that of a “native” or an “expert” helping non-natives and non-experts to comprehend a range of phenomena that are largely unfamiliar to them. The processes I’m most interested in, however, work in both directions. Let me point to two examples of this.

Example #1. There was a moment when Giulia and I needed to produce some kind of document about our collaboration (a report, a grant proposal — Giulia may remember the specifics better than I do) for an institutional audience. At least part of that document needed to be in German, und obwohl sich mein Deutsch verbessert hat, ist es immer noch nicht sehr gut. And so Giulia needed to write that document. When I looked at it, there was a sentence that was otherwise completely in German, except for the word “race,” which was in English. And this confused me. Why this one tiny moment of English in an otherwise all-German text? Why not simply use the German word “Rasse”? And, as Giulia patiently explained to me, the answer was that “Rasse” is not really the same thing as “race.” It’s not even really “almost” the same thing. At a purely denotative level, if one were to try to translate “Rasse” into English, “race” is probably the closest fit (and vice versa) . . . but the connotations, the histories, the nuanced articulations are different enough that using “Rasse” in this case would have conveyed a very different set of meanings than we intended.

Example #2. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and in solidarity with the protestors in the streets of Minneapolis, there was a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Heidelberg in early June 2020, which Giulia and I went to. I did not expect this event to be even half as intense as what I knew was happening back home. But the event still held multiple enlightening surprises for me. The simplest of these was how much of the event — I’d estimate 25-40% — was in English. To be sure, I knew that enough German citizens, especially in a university city like Heidelberg, speak enough English that most people would understand me if I spoke in my native language, but I did not anticipate that a public political event organized by Germans for a presumptively German audience would use English to such an extent that I would be able to understand so much of it.

More complicated, though, was the moment when one of the speakers — a phenotypically black man who was presumably also a German citizen — gave a speech in English, in which he used (and emphasized) the phrase, “All Lives Matter,” and where the crowd cheered him for doing so.

Here is where I may need to do some translation work for people in this audience who are only passingly familiar with the history of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Because it’s entirely possible — and reasonable — for such folks not to understand why my immediate, visceral reaction to those words in that context was something of a shocked, flabbergasted, horrified gut punch. In the US, almost from the very beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, the phrase “all lives matter” has been most commonly used by white people on the conservative end of the political spectrum as a forceful rebuttal to the claim that black lives matter. It’s been used as an attempt to erase blackness and institutional racism from public discourse, and to recenter whiteness without overtly referencing whiteness. Put simply, if a speaker at a Black Lives Matter in the US — regardless of their own racial identity — tried to use the phrase “all lives matter” in the way that the speaker in Heidelberg did that sunny June afternoon, they would be shouted off the stage with righteous anger and a sharp sense of betrayal.

I assume the Heidelberg speaker that day knew all this. The speech he gave made it clear that he was more than just passingly familiar with the history of racist police brutality in the US, and with the Black Lives Matter movement’s struggle to bring an end to such violence. He was very explicitly speaking in solidarity with the protestors in Minneapolis, and he was very explicitly trying to draw his audience’s attention to the comparable forms of police violence that are routinely used against immigrant populations in Germany. It would have been almost impossible for him to know all the things he said that day and somehow not know how differently “all lives matter” would have signified in the US. But it was also clear that he was using the phrase as a way to express solidarity: i.e., black lives matter because all lives matter.

And while I won’t pretend that it happened instantly or easily — it didn’t — I managed to work past my initial, instinctive gut-punch reaction to those words. On the surface, this may not sound like such a difficult thing to do. After all, cultural studies has long insisted that meaning is contextual, contingent, and articulated (rather than essentialized, ahistorical, or universal), and that we need to be attentive to the ways that meanings, projects, and politics vary across both space and time. But one of the things I learned that afternoon, when something that I thought I understood very well was translated back to me by an Afro-German speaker, is how wide the gap can be between understanding (at an intellectual level) the contingency of the world, and actually being able to feel that when confronted with actual examples of such contigency. Cultural studies likes to claim (and should) that we need to have a kind of openness, a humility, a willingness to question the fixity and stability of our own intellectual and political foundations. But it is much harder to actually live up to that ideal. Embracing more moments of translation as radical recontexualization is one way to help us bridge that gap.

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