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 28, 2020. <>.

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J. Bisping


As an unaffiliated professional Babels volunteer with one chancy WSF behind my belt I have just taken the time to read most of this thread, instead of when it was brought to my attention last summer, and I must admit that I am in great admiration of the time and energy Mr. Naumann has invested in his original article, and subsequently in participating in the debate it provoked. I truly believe he has the best interests of the Forum at heart in denouncing Babels for its rank amateurishness on the logistics and organizational fronts. Somewhere else I much enjoyed the surgeon analogy - where, praytell, can I volunteer to excise your tumor? Defensiveness as a counter argument is a strangely suicical tack chosen by any number of babelitos in response. Being a North American, and perhaps somewhat of a pragmatist, I must admit to having been both put off and somewhat intimidated by his, from my standpoint, counterintuitive decision to pepper his original text with all manner of purportedly weighty, at times untranslated quotes and obscure cultural references aimed at imagined cognoscenti. I think some measure of the ill will he seems to have brought upon himself may be traced back to this counterproductive decision, which I percieve as either a lack of faith in the sheer force of his arguments, and a concomitant desire to assert his credentials, or perhaps a slight lack of simplicity, voire humility in the service of his admirable goal. But that was the only irritant, and I find no justification for much of the venom spewed his way. Obviously one aspect of a possible solution would be to have a strong recruitment drive among professionals willing to volunteer, but alas, very few aiic members could participate due to the bewildering rule they seem to have imposed upon themselves, namely, that any member volunteering his or her services must absolutely pay for all the related costs, i.e., airfare, hotel accomodation and incidentals, unless he is granted a special exemption by some extraodinary committee. What's that all about? What possible abuse does such a rule seek to cirmcmvent?

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Thanasis Chrysos


Just a quick comment, to note that since my article I'm no more a "Nomad". The opinions written in my report are those of me as an observer from the Greek Social Forum, not as a Nomad. Them Nomads, have their own account of what happened, available at

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Peter Naumann


Dear Ms Boéri,

Your letter of 12 June, which was sent to me automatically, and published days later deserves an answer – above all because it concentrates, in an almost exemplary manner, the prejudices, clichés and the sometimes almost paranoid-sounding behaviors of many members of Babels.

On 16 June I asked you to tell me with whom I am dealing:

“Dear Ms Boéri,

The AIIC postmaster sent me your letter of 12 June a few days ago, and yesterday it has been published. I will gladly respond to your remarks. However, in order to be able to comment fittingly in the interests of a fruitful discussion, I must first know with whom I am dealing: with a conference interpreter whom I can address as a colleague, or with an untrained supporter of Babels whom it would be impolite to burden with technical arguments. Even after repeated perusal of your letter I have been unable to reach a definite conclusion.

In anticipation of a brief reply,

Yours sincerely,

Peter Naumann”

So far you have not yet answered, but I was not idle and obtained information. Your article which I quoted from, does not say anything about you. The same article, however, was published on 20 February, 2005. in http://www/ There you say that you are a “professional interpreter and researcher”. From other sources I have found out that you are still a student in Granada. I also have found out that you were a well-paid coordinator of Babels at the Social Forum in London. I have heard a lot about the chaotic organization of that event from competent colleagues. This information is so contradictory that I find it really difficult to have an idea of who you are. Possibly that goes for Babels in general.

Before I go into details of your letter, which I will quote in your curious way of writing and with your punctuation, I would like to remind you that I, in one paragraph, expressly defended the amateurs who were misused by Babels. Strangely enough, my critics, including you, did not take note of this paragraph, and therefore I will quote it again here in full. I do not really like to quote myself, because I always try to achieve unmistakable clarity. But, if you and the Babelitos do not read accurately, I must quote myself here. Thus, I also present below my defense of the amateurs, which you, as the amateurish coordinator of Babels in London, can also apply to yourself.

“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 organizers. 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.”

Now about your letter.

In the middle of the letter you say: “Nous n’avons pas besoin de vos leçons, car Babels ne vous a pas attendu pour se remettre en question, pour prendre conscience de ses lacunes [...].” If we do not consider the untenable self-immunization, that only accepts criticism that that been ordered and shows a strange idea of democracy and transparency, you and Babels really depend on a tutor, as the really huge "lacunes" of Babels’ practice and your letter demonstrate involuntarily. I do not wish to take up this thankless role, here or in the future, since, in my opinion and as found by other experts, Babels hardly appears to be capable of developing and thus also not of learning, and therefore any pedagogical efforts would be futile.

In my mother tongue we say: Jugend kennt keine Tugend, Youth knows no virtue. However, I will not repay your lack of courtesy with silence or rudeness, but instead with arguments. Do not complain about it later. By arguing with you, I am after all taking you seriously.

Let us first analyze the statements in their order of appearance.

“Vous me permettrez de douter un tant soit peu de votre soucis de qualité de l’interprétation au Forum Social ou ailleurs.” Since you do not know me, and do not belong to my profession, at least not yet, you cannot dispute my concern about quality. You lack both the professional and moral authority for this.

You ask: “Pourquoi ne vous insurgez-vous pas contre le bénévolat qui assure l’interprétation dans les commissariats, les tribunaux, les hôpitaux, etc. dans les pays où la profession de l’interprète social n’est pas reconnue?” The answer is very simple: because this was not the subject of my contribution to the discussion. The subject was Babels’ fiasco in Porto Alegre, and also the constitutional susceptibility of Babels to fiascos. The subject was the misuse of voluntary activities, consequently damaging the reputation of our profession, the selling out of established standards of quality and disregard for the participants’ interest in communicating at the 5th World Social Forum.

You do not know how often in almost twenty-six years I have worked voluntarily. I would say the same for the colleagues I have mentioned. Already for this reason you cannot accuse me of placing the quality of my colleagues whom I mentioned as an example above the fate of destitute immigrants and asylum-seekers. You simply have not understood this passage. I only mentioned my colleagues to show what ”unalienated interpreting – interpreting with a human face” means. Although Babels prides itself so much on its human quality, amateurs (except from a few born interpreters who may exist) produce exactly the contrary, to wit, an incoherent discourse. An activity that by its very nature is demanding, such as interpreting, requires professional qualification. In very rare cases it is innate, mostly however, it still requires years of education and practice. If we subtract the really qualified professional interpreters who work at Babels and represent the best traditions of our profession (I do not know what their percentage is, in the interest of transparency, Babels should indicate this), and also the few born interpreters, Babels is not qualified to carry out the task it has assigned itself. The good will of the “bénévoles” is not sufficient. Your colleague Maria, on 2 June wrote: “we are all just members doing our best”. Possibly, but your best is not good enough. To the contrary of what you suppose, I do not live in a “tour de marbre”, but am very sorry for the fate of the “minorités grandissantes”, who fall into the hands of immature amateurs, who in turn are coordinated by incapable ‘horizontal’ networks, in other words, by uncoordinated networks. In this way the “minorités grandissantes” fall from the frying pan into the fire.

“Espérons que partout où l’injustice fait rage, il y ait des iniciatives de bénévoles”: Here, for once I can agree with you. However, I cannot agree with your monopolizing the “responsabilité sociale”. This is clear proof to the Manichean world view of Babels. In your youthful inexperience, how would you know that professional interpreters, even when, or precisely when they belong to associations, are on principle against volunteer work? The history of our profession show that this is not true. Of course there are people among us who only think of their career. However, this is true for all professions, and is no reason to equate conference interpreters with money-grubbing Foreign Legionnaires. You will hardly be able to deny that demanding work is paid accordingly. The talk of “tarifs irresponsables qui remplissent le portefeuille d’une minorité et font le malheur d’une majorité “, in this sense is an irresponsible phony argument that is not useful for the discussion. You are implying an original relationship between the high fees of professional interpreters and the poverty of the majority. But you do not offer the reader any proof of this. You are hardly in a position to do so. Let us look at your case. You were a member of a three-person organization team of the London Forum, and got the four-month job that paid 8000 pounds through a commercial advertisement. For an inexperienced student or budding interpreter, that is certainly quite a high sum. If we consider that you did not have any experience as chief interpreter or as consultant interpreter, this money would have been better employed by the directors of the Forum, and by the horizontal, in other words headless network Babels, by employing an experienced, possibly retired consultant interpreter. You did not find anything wrong with taking this payment. What now gives you the moral right to speak of “tarifs irresponsables” of professional interpreters?. Or are you working with two measures, according to the phrase: Quod licet Babelo, non licet populo, in a free quotation of Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi?

"Ce que vous ne semblez pas comprendre c’est que les communautés de traducteurs, interprètes, linguistes, journalistes, qui participent à Babels, Traduttori per la pace ou autres, créent des alternatives dans um espace où votre bible du marché n’a pas sa place.” Allow me to quote myself once again. “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.” From where did you get your “bible du marché “? Clearly you are not referring to me but to some fiction.

I already discussed Babels’ need for instruction above, and it becomes increasingly clear as I continue to read your letter. So let us now look at your advice:

“Mettez en pratique vos proverbes Monsieur Nauman “Cordonnier, mêle-toi de ta pantoufle!: qu’AIIC s’occupe de son business et que Babels s’occupe de ceux qui ont besoin d’elle dans le cadre du Forum.” Once again, you did not read carefully. I received the cue for the proverbs from a member of Babels, who is not a babelito, but an experienced conference interpreter, Jorge Melo Alarcón (Concepción/Chile). He ends his report on his experience with the following nice Spanish refrán: Pastelero a tus pasteles. I simply added other Western European and the Brazilian equivalent, of course for the purpose of agreeing, because Babels, as I have learned to know it and as other specialists report, and conference interpreting have nothing to do with each other. The Manichean world view that you share with Babels, is expressed again in the following correlations: ‘AIIC- business’ and ‘Babels – ceux qui ont besoin d’elle dans le cadre du Forum’. Since your letter, three reports have already been published by AIIC members who turned away from Babels in disappointment (Mercedes Conde and Pablo Narbona) or did not join Babels from the word go (Charo Baquero). They confirm my perception of Babels. I should mention that I am not a member of AIIC, and for this reason mentioning AIIC in this sentence and in the next one is not permissible. As a “researcher” that you claim to be (http://www., you could have looked it up in the AIIC Online Directory – and you would not have found me. I do not know the colleagues who have participated so far in this discussion, and they do not know me. Despite this, we have reached the same results. That should really set you to thinking.

”On a pas besoin, ni envie que vous veniez nous organiser, merci bien!” You have a pressing need for someone to organize you, even if you deny it. But have no worry, I will not take on this Herculean task.

“Cependant, permettez-moi encore une fois de douter de votre capacité à être neutre dans la cabine ou ailleurs, c’est d’une naïveté croustillante, surtout quand on voit comment vous traduisez Babels en insultes (ce qu’AIIC n’a pas pensé bon de censurer d’ailleurs).” Like Maria (2 June), Alberto Prieto (in on 3 June), Conxi Mollà (3 June), and other babelitos, you are always talking about “insultes”. I would like to inform you that I wrote about my own observations, and referred to the observations of other colleagues who are capable of judging.

“Insultes”, “essai calomnique”, "slanderous article” (Liz in on 3 June), “ the article is offensive in itself”(Liz, 3 June), “diffamatory article”(Maria, 2 June) are labels that I must reject. If amateurs were to say this, I could still understand. But when Maria and Alberto, who call themselves professional interpreters, and you and Conxi Mollà, as just budding interpreters or students argue this, I doubt your capacity to judge interpreters technically.

On the other hand I can also understand your reaction. The great Austrian writer, Karl Kraus (1874-1936) created the following aphorism: What does not hurt is also not true (Was nicht trifft, trifft auch nicht zu). What he means is the relationship between truth and being hurt. Truth is often felt to be disagreeable and hurtful, like this time by you and your colleagues. That is, however, no reason to accuse those who tell the truth of injurious and offensive intentions. Those who behave in this way remind one of the kings who had messengers killed when they brought bad news.

“Cette culture que vous étalez comme de la confiture avec vos citations savantes, ainsi que votre définition de l’interprète, ça sent le billet de dollar à plein nez, l’élitisme, l’arrogance et le mépris. Mettez à jour vos lectures avec Bourdieu, Derrida, Foucault, ça devrait éclairer votre lanterne.” This philistine aversion against the European tradition does not suit you. What do you have against the ancient definition of man as a “zoon logon echon”, which precisely Babels should always keep in mind? What do you have against Kant, Hamann, Marx, Gramsci? Your recommend that I read Bourdieu, Derrida and Foucault. They are not unknown to me, I would be the last to reject their significance. But they would not exist without the authors that I mentioned and the traditions they represent. After all, what do you have against the definition of interpreter, which in fact does not make any claim to originality? Allow me to quote myself, once again: “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.” The founding fathers of our profession, Jean Herbert, André Kaminker, Hans Jacob, Constantin Andronikof and others would certainly agree with this definition. Can you really not think of anything better to say than “ça sent le billet de dollar à plein nez, l’élitisme, l’arrogance et le mépris”? Think it over again. And give me your definition of interpreter. I assume that you want to make interpreters into Party comrades. People follow one orientation or another, they have this or that preference, love this and hate that, why should it be any different in our divided and antagonistic society? When you interpret, though, you must take distance. That is the only way to gain credibility.

“Merci bien pour vos conseils de formation dans les Grandes Écoles d’Interprétation quand nous savons tous qu’elles ne fabriquent que des machines à interpréter pour le marché alors que d’autres écoles forment, dans l’ombre, des interprètes pour la société, des interprètes-citoyens conscients de leur responsabilité sociale.” Chère mademoiselle, you are falling back into Manichaeism, you are again usurping virtue. Was you are saying about the Conference Interpreter Schools is completely wrong. Many graduates from the main institutes may only think about the market, many syllabi may be oriented mainly to the needs of industry, trade and official policies. It would be idle to deny this. Despite this, the Institutes above all impart techniques, and where people with a lot of experience teach, an attitude. Whoever knows the technique and takes the attitude that is appropriate to interpreting, basically can perform any job in this field, as long as he learns the specific demands of each. Who does not do so, already fails as far as technique is concerned. There is neither progressive interpreting nor reactionary interpreting. There is only good or bad interpreting.

In the memoirs of Hans Jacob, whom I already cited twice in my article, there is interesting information about one of the first interpreters at UNO, George Sherry, who was discovered by Chief Interpreter Colonel Léon Dostert at the first Post-War Conference of the Union Internationale des Télécommunications, in Atlantic City. Hear Jacob: “One of the young beginners in Atlantic City was George Sherry, who is now certainly one of the best Russian-language interpreters. He gained recognition through his translation of the speeches of the sarcastic, venomous Vishinsky, who knew how to value his interpreter although he knew that Sherry was a militant Anticommunist journalist. The Soviets at all big conferences and in all international organizations, of which they are members, are quite indifferent as to whether translators and interpreters are emigrants or not. What they care about is the quality of their work, the trustworthiness of the translation.” (Kind meiner Zeit, Cologne, 1962, p. 282).

You sign your letter ”Julie Boéri. Auteur de l’article que vous critiquez dans votre essai calomnique et que vous avez été incapable de comprendre du haut de votre arrogance et corporatisme.” Read the paragraph in my article once again, more carefully, and you will see that my remarks are only about that citation. The criticism of arrogance is unjustified (unless you put arrogance in the same boat as defending the classical standards of quality and fighting amateurism), that of “corporativism” is quite ridiculous, since until now I have never belonged to an association, but I would never deny the importance of associations.

Since you are explicitly moralizing, I would like to include here explicitly a political remark. Politics was not my primary topic, but Babels and, lately, the immanent amateurism of the leaders of the World Social Forum and Regional Forums have a clearly political dimension that at its center and in its consequences is undemocratic, and thus conservative, and in some places even reactionary. Anyone who wants to change the world must become competent to do so. This also goes for interpreters and for the organization of teams of interpreters.

Now I have commented on your letter in detail and, as I see, looking back, have taught you a short lesson on careful reading. I will summarize the commentary in three pieces of advice, although you did not ask me for any, which you and several other Babels members who have spoken so far, urgently need in spite of this, and you will get them free of charge – which certainly comes unexpectedly for you – here in the AIIC discussion forum.

(1) You should read my article more thoroughly before you answer me. Being able to read thoroughly, and listen well, in fact – forgive me for being trite, something you will certainly already have heard at your university in Granada, - is an essential preliminary condition for successful interpreting. He who cannot or does not want to hear, also cannot interpret. You cannot or do not want to hear, at least you did not understand my article. Reading your letter gives one the impression that you are not referring to it at all, but to another completely different text. You mount the barricades – and do not shoot at the bourgeoisie, at Imperialism, the original creators of misery in this world, but at a paper tiger. With this you place yourself at the scene but do not hit the target, me. Also it is not necessary to have great courage to shoot at a paper tiger.

Before you hurry to count me among your enemies, you should consider that I have great sympathy for the motivations that underlie the World Social Forum. I made this quite clear in many places in my contribution to discussion. Already for this reason, judgments such as “Du haut de votre tour de marbre”, “votre bible du marché”, “ça sent le billet de dollar à plein nez” are inappropriate. Read my contribution to the discussion once again. If you really are an interpreter, or want to become one, and if besides this you do not want to be exposed to the suspicion of functional illiteracy, which appears to be the general characteristic of many amateurs at Babels, you will take back these opinions.

(2) The first piece of advice logically results in the second, which one cannot say enough to future interpreters: Before opening your mouth, switch on your brain. Hopefully your teachers will already have told you this but you did not take this into account in your letter. If you had read my contribution carefully, you would not call it an “essai calomnique”. Where you fantasize that there is slander, you find observations. I can prove what I wrote. I observed Babels in Porto Alegre, and above all I listened to it, studied it in the canonical writings sedimented in the excited, often aimless chatting in My statements are statements of fact. These are not only my statements, in fact, but also those of other colleagues. In my contribution I cited only Maricruz González Cárdenas (Quito) and Jorge Melo Alarcón (Concepción/Chile. I could have cited others too. In the discussion Mercedes Conde (Paris), Charo Baquero (Seville) and Pablo Narbona (Brussels) eloquently confirmed these statements.

(3) A fruitful discussion can only take place if one gets involved in the issue, not about people who represent this or the other issue. What issue brings us together with all our differences? The conviction that our world must be changed, if we do not want to destroy it completely, and thus be destroyed. If Babels prescribes this issue for itself, it should not concentrate on Peter Naumann. You too should not. So argue ad rem, not ad hominem. That is the only way that you will manage to make a contribution to overcome the discussion style that characterizes Babels: It is not free speech and reply, but rather a conventicle of the self-righteous, in which consensus is presupposed from the word go - and precisely for this reason no reasonable discussion or learning are possible.

P.S. (09.07.05)

I wrote the answer above weeks ago, here I am answering your communication of 3 July, in which belatedly you DID NOT answer my question which I formulated in very simple terms out of consideration for Babels. I do not yet know whether you did not answer it because you are incapable of doing so or on purpose.

You continue to insist on the comfortable argument of insults (“artículo que insulta a los miembros de Babels”). I assume, therefore, that you are not a professional interpreter, since a colleague would never be able to misunderstand my arguments so badly.

If you blame the failure of Babels on the lack of organization of the World Social Forum, you should not have worked with the WSF. I have the impression, however, that this argument too is not accurate and would not withstand a closer examination.

With your selective choice of citations, you distorted Charo Baquero’s contribution to the discussion. You have not noticed that this colleague, who is close to WSF, did not enter Babels for reasons that are not easy to refute. Charo Baquero also refers to many reports from disappointed colleagues, who had already worked for Babels. Do not base yourself so much on the professional interpreters who join Babels. Those who understand their business will not want to be directed by amateurs.

Precisely because of its complexity, interpreting at a social forum can only be organized by experienced conference interpreters. You yourself, in London, proved that amateurs or beginners at interpreting cannot coordinate a complex event. The WSF would have required an experienced consultant interpreter, not beginners, and much less amateurs. Your criticism of Walter Keiser, Phil Smith and myself in the third paragraph is not specific. The statement: “La acción política está en otros aspectos” is not further justified. However, the statement that Babels cannot be discussed in the AIIC Forum is not acceptable. There can be discussions wherever honestly arguing people with specialized knowledge meet. To judge from the results seen so far, certainly better in the AIIC Forum than in the Babels Forum.

Instead of answering my question in the next to last paragraph, you avoid it and accuse me again of being arrogant. In this I see a further indication of your lack of knowledge of the nature of interpreting. Even if you are a budding interpreter you have a lot to learn. For the rest: of course I read between the lines, my detailed answer to your letters should certainly prove that sufficiently.

The recommendation “tendrá que aprender otros modales”, according to the considerations above, flows from a projection mechanism which you share with many members of Babels. You demand of me the manners you lack. Consider my answer as the expression of a courtesy that I believe I owe you. And do not remove yourself too fast from the discussion (“pongo fin a mi contribución a este debate”). That would be childish, although it would correspond to the age of Babels, and would also not be in the objective interest of the “minorités grandissantes“ whose advocate you claim to be.

With due thanks to my colleague Hedy Lorraine Hofmann for the English translation

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Julie Boéri


Creo que hay dos debates, un debate sobre la calidad de la interpretación

voluntaria, y en particular en el marco del Foro Social, que es continuo dentro de

Babels y en el que todo el mundo puede contribuir, y un debate aquí en esta sección que

parte de un artículo que insulta a los miembros de Babels y que AIIC, y aquí no me

refiero a sus miembros sino a la institución simbólica, no dudó en publicar en

Comunicate! Yo creo que por muy poco académica que sea la revista, debería

asegurarse de que respeta un protocolo mínimo. Pues, con un artículo semejante, la

falta de debate era de prever.

Más que desorganización de Babels, yo diría más bien los problemas de organización

del foro en general, que afectan a Babels para poder llevar a cabo su trabajo. Son

muchos los profesionales que se sumaron a la causa de Babels y que tratan de

combinar las buenas intenciones con la excelencia. Creo que la clave no está en si lo

organizan profesionales o no. El evento como Charo Baquero dice es gigante y el

proceso logístico y político muy complejo. No todo depende de que tengamos a

intérpretes profesionales, y no por ello líderes, dentro de la organización de

Babels, esto ya lo comprobamos.

Creo que los Señores Keiser, Naumann y Smith hacen una mala lectura de Babels como

actor político en el Foro. No se trata de que para interpretar haya que estar de

acuerdo con las ideas del orador o la oradora. La acción política está en otros

aspectos pero de nuevo, no creo que la página web de AIIC sea el sitio adecuado para


Por último, estimado Peter Naumann, no me sorprende que a pesar de varias lecturas

de mi carta no haya sido capaz de averiguar en qué categoría englobarme.

Quizás sean sus categorías las que son erróneas. Si intenta volver a leerla con menos

arrogancia, quizás pueda leer entre las líneas. ¿Un intérprete profesional de renombre

como usted ¿no debería saber hacerlo ya?

Si lo que busca es un debate fructífero con alguien, o al menos conmigo, me temo que

tendrá que aprender otros modales.

Con esto, pongo fin a mi contribución a este debate.

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Jesús de Manuel Jerez


No voy a extenderme aquí sobre mi visión de la calidad en el voluntariado. Ante todo porque no me parece que ésa sea la principal preocupación del autor del artículo que ha suscitado este debate: al Sr. Nauman le molesta el voluntariado en sí y por eso lo ataca utilizando como pretexto las carencias, reales, en la calidad, de otro modo sería más respetuoso y constructivo. Pero es que sobre todo ya lo hemos expuesto en detalle en el artículo cuyo enlace se indica más arriba (v. Brander, López y De Manuel 2004 en la revista Puentes) y que no parece que algunos de los miembros de AIIC que han escrito en este foro (incluido el Sr. Keiser) se hayan tomado la molestia de leer. De otro modo se habrían dado cuenta de que en Babels no faltan profesionales y profesores de interpretación preocupados por la calidad y que están esforzándose por mejorarla con medidas concretas. Así que, como ya ha indicado alguien antes, no hemos esperado ni necesitamos la "ayuda" ni aún menos la dirección de ninguna asociación externa para afrontar el problema.

Me llama la atención, por lo demás, la exigencia de que todos los intérpretes voluntari@s tengan una cualificación universitaria (exigencia que compartimos en Ecos, asociación a la que pertenezco, al menos cuando así se cubra la demanda de voluntari@s) cuando AIIC nunca ha mantenido tal exigencia como criterio de admisión en su asociación. De hecho fue fundada por intérpretes autodidactas, es decir, por personas que empezaron haciendo, cobrando por ello, lo mismo que tant@s voluntari@s de Babels hacen ahora gratuitamente, interpretar sin cualificación por la falta o escasez de intérpretes cualificados para atender una demanda concreta. Si en los juicios de Nuremberg, que dieron lugar a penas de muerte, interpretaron militares bilingües sin formación previa como intérpretes, ¿qué hay de tan escandaloso en que ahora, para reunir equipos de 500 y hasta 1000 intérpretes se tenga que recurrir en parte a militantes bilingües o pluringües sin cualificación pero, a veces, como aquellos militares, muy dotados para la interpretación? ¿Acaso son peores estos militantes que aquellos militares?

Me pregunto si en el fondo lo que preocupa a AIIC no es que se vaya extendiendo lo que ya es un secreto a voces: que hay vida fuera de AIIC lo mismo que hay vida fuera del mercado y que Babels y el voluntariado en interpretación por extensión necesitan a AIIC como el Foro Social Mundial necesita al Banco Mundial o al Fondo Monetario Internacional. Y no hablo de los miembros de AIIC como intérpretes-ciudadanos individuales. Los hay que ya colaboran con nosotros. También hay un ex sub-director del BM, ex asesor de un presidente de EEUU que se ha pasado al altermundismo. Un tal Joseph Stiglitz, quizá algún día ustedes lo interpretaron.

Y ya que AIIC se mete en nuestros asuntos, cosa que agradecemos, ¿me permiten ustedes una sugerencia? ¿Por qué no abren su asociación a todos los intérpretes que demuestren serlo? Hay títulos oficiales y certificados académicos, exactamente igual de válidos que los que se expiden para los médicos o los abogados, que permiten distinguir quién es intérprete y quién no sin necesidad de padrinos. Si así lo hicieran, l@s intérpretes profesionales de todo el mundo podríamos considerarlos realmente LA asociación internacional de intérpretes de conferencia, digna de representarnos a tod@s. Mientras no lo hagan, muchos dudaremos de su legitimidad para organizarnos, representarnos, defendernos y, aún menos, darnos lecciones.

Jesús de Manuel Jerez

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Phil Smith


This article has certainly struck a rich seam.

Professional interpreters have a long-standing tradition of voluntary work, so we can all understand the incentive for setting up Babels. When we work pro bono everything is just as it would be for an ordinary paid contract: manning strengths, preparation and discretion. Voluntary work must be done to some same exacting standards as all work a professional interpreter undertakes. It is simply not good enough to say that you can be forgiven for substandard work because your heart is in the right place.

If you support a cause you want the people working for it to communicate as effectively as possible. If you bring language skills to the table, then concentrate on offering them to delegates. Likewise if your expertise is animal husbandry or water resources, stick to your core skill. As they say, jack of all trades…

You don’t have to support an organisation to work well as an interpreter. We are there to provide effective communication between participants, everything else is secondary. That being said, you clearly wouldn’t volunteer to work for an organisation you didn’t support.

Somewhere on the Babels website it says:

“Babels is not a provider of linguistic services, it is a political actor. We do not work on any project in whose process we have not been involved from the beginning, contributing to the definition of the project itself with our ideas and demands”

Babels wants to provide a service and be involved in the meeting, and therein lies a contradiction. You cannot work properly at a meeting as an interpreter and as a participant. The two roles are mutually exclusive.

Babels talks in its charter of “horizontality”, which basically means all members are equal. Fair enough, but for any interpreting assignment – and particularly one as complex as the social forum – you need a leader to establish the client’s requirement and assign the interpreters accordingly. This coordination role can and should be taken on by a consultant interpreter. Putting non interpreters in charge of programming invites poor use of your human resources.

The basic criticism against Babels appears to be that they are a group of amateurs who do more harm than good. The Babels registration form relies on people giving an honest assessment of their own abilities. They don’t ask for referees, details of interpreter training or international organisations for which you work. This is probably asking for trouble.

It would be fair to provide coverage of all languages, but it is simply not possible. I can understand the objection to “colonial languages” but they do cover a lot of people if you include secondary speakers (English 480 million, Spanish 320 million, French 265 million, Portuguese 188 million) In practical terms, you are more likely to find professional interpreters who work with these languages.

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When I suggested to Peter Naumann to get his article on BABELS published in COMMUNICATE I did so hoping that this would lead to a positive debate among conference interpreters, both AIIC and non-AIIC, on the delicate and difficult subject of voluntary interpreting. Unfortunately this is not what happened. The "debate" immediately turned into personal attacks instead of substantive discussion, and aggressive criticism of AIIC, as if Peter Naumann’s article had been AIIC-piloted. In one word, a totally unproductive response. Fortunately, of late, some positive, experience-based contributions have yielded elements for a constructive debate.

Just one word about AIIC. Ever since it’s foundation, November 1953, it has been AIIC’s policy to encourage voluntary work by its members. Article 13 of the first issue of the Professional Code stipulates: "Les membres de l’Association peuvent fournir leurs services gratuitement, à condition d’assumer eux-mêmes leurs frais de voyage et de séjour éventuels (sauf dérogation exceptionnelle que le Conseil aurait consentie)".

In this contribution I am not going to talk about AIIC’s practise or policy. I am not either dealing with borderline cases, such as a mixed system of paid teams for main meetings and volunteers for secondary or satellite meetings, or cases where certain cost items such as accommodation, meals, and travel arrangements might legitimately be negotiated as being at the expense of the organisers. I also omit in this article the thorny question of how to define organisations or events "deserving" voluntary interpretation. Of course, all these elements should be part of the debate. To day I am writing as a professional conference interpreter having worked for free for a number of meetings. I am also drawing on my experience as a consultant interpreter having organised and managed teams of voluntary interpreters.

Yet, before going into this, I must take issue with a statement of principle, shall I call it credo, repeatedly brandished on the BABELS front. It stipulates that in order to faithfully and excellently interpret a political, socially engaged debate the interpreter must be deeply convinced by, and committed to, the Cause. This is totally wrong. Any conference interpreter worthy of this name is perfectly able to faithfully render any type of speech, political, economic, social, religious, even if he/she does not share the credo of the speaker. It is precisely his/her job to convincingly speak as a political passionara, a sober scientist, a tough trade unionist, a bible-quoting evangelist, a person deeply in grief, etc. Not to master this oratory skill is dangerous. I have seen, very rarely it is true, interpreters who were so deeply engulfed in their political credo, or marked by a terrible personal experience during a war, that in certain circumstances their feelings permeated their work, leading them to "loaded" or biased renderings. Consequence: Frequently, their interpretation caused diplomatic incidents. At worst they were fired on the spot, at best they were transferred into the Translation Service where their output could be checked before publication.

Here now my rules of conduct when organising teams for voluntary work (I simplify):


Seen from the viewpoint of the consultant (recruiting) interpreter, this implies:

a) For the interpreter:

1. Together with the offer, supply of precise information about the meeting and the working conditions (languages required, number of interpreters per booth, work-load). Information about accommodation and meals, travel arrangements, insurance, etc. Qualification of the offer (firm, option, deadlines).

2. As soon as possible, information about the composition of the team(s), booth mates, etc.

3. An individual contract clearly stating the terms of recruitment.

4. Before the meeting, information about, if possible dispatching of, reference documentation, terminology, detailed session programmes, etc. Before and during the meeting, provision of texts of the oral presentations, legends of slides, PowerPoint transparents

b) General:

1. Recruitment: If you can get voluntary interpreters familiar with the subject matter of the meeting all the better, but real professionals will be able very quickly to prepare any meeting. Beginners should be tested before being put on a team. By "beginners" I mean interpreters who have had advanced interpretation training, including simultaneous interpretation, but who still lack professional experience. NEVER MAN A BOOTH WITH BEGINNERS ONLY, AVOID IF AT ALL POSSIBLE LEAVING BEGINNERS ALONE IN A BOOTH. For large meetings, testing sessions should be organised before the event. Sometimes I got voluntary help from the faculty of recognized interpreters’ schools experienced in testing, sometimes assistance by consultant interpreters used to spot talents.

2. Technical conditions: THERE IS NO REASON TO PUT UP WITH SUB-STANDARD SIMULTANEOUS INTERPRETATION EQUIPMENT AND/OR UNQUALIFIED TECHNICAL STAFF. I always insist on being put into touch, prior to the meeting, with the person(s) in charge of the equipment. I submit my requirements on the basis of the same "Checklist on essential items on booths and equipment for simultaneous interpretation" I use for non-voluntary events. Sometimes I even succeeded in getting for the organisers excellent equipment supplied free of charge by equipment firms. NEVER FORGET: THE BEST INTERPRETERS IN THE WORLD WILL BE UNABLE TO SECURE QUALITY WORK IF THE EQUIPMENT IS NO GOOD.


It is my experience that professional interpreters, AIIC or non-AIIC, will gladly accept voluntary work, provided they get the assurance that the working conditions offered to them will permit optimal quality work.

I hope that from now on the debate will be about substance, not persons or passions.

Walter (Wadi) Keiser, Geneva

20 June 2005

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Danielle GREE


Au risque de me faire taxer d'élitisme et d'arrogance, je me permettrai de recommander l'utilisation de l'adjectif "calomnieux" plutôt que le néologisme "calomnique"...

Je n'ai pas pu m'en empêcher... ça doit être mon passage par les Grandes Ecoles... sorry...

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Pablo Narbona


Dear all,

I know this debate started 2 weeks ago, but I have just found out about it, and would like to give my opinion.

I am a professional interpreter, member of aiic. I have done volunteer interpreting before, and belonged to the team of interpreters in the Paris ESF, which I think allows me to have an inside-view of things.

The idea of organizing a non-paid interpreting service to allow so many people from different countries to communicate seemed wonderful to me. And I could not agree more with most of the subjects to be dealt with there, summarized in the sentence: "another world is possible". So I decided to embark for a 5-day volunteer interpreting experience in Paris.

My disappointment was as big as my expectations had been. I am sure that the organizers worked really hard to make things right, I can only compliment their efforts, their passion, their generosity for the time spent there. That is why I find it so sad that the results were so poor. And by that I only want to comment on the interpreting itself. I will not even go into detail about the provision of housing and food, for fear of being called a snob (although not sleeping properly in 5 days DOES have an influence in the interpreting work).

The best example I can refer to is the one given by another colleague: the brain surgeon. Would anyone allow a volunteer surgeon to operate a tumor in their brain? Well, that is what happened in Paris in many cases. The result was not the loss of someone's life, but miscommunication, misunderstanding and often a very bad image of the profession. And why did that happen? I will give two reasons and try to make suggestions on how it could be improved:

1. The organizers of the interpreting services were not interpreters. Organizing such an event is extremely complicated. Even more so when the underlying strategy seemed to be: “quantity, not quality”. Babels proudly announced that they (we) were providing interpreting from and into an incredible amount of languages. My suggestion is that they (we) should have focused on a smaller number of languages, but guaranteeing the quality of the service.

2. The interpreters were (in many cases) not interpreters. I met many people who were about to go into the booth (and actually did) who never had before. I agree that such an event could be a great chance for students to practice, but a minimum standard should be applied. What is the use of sending a 1st or 2nd year interpreting student to a booth with zero experience (not even class-room experience)? I worked with a very nice girl in one occasion who turned the mike on and could not utter 2 words in a row. She was completely frustrated and ended up wondering whether she should try to become an interpreter after all. What is the use of that? Not to mention those who just "knew a bit of languages" and had nothing to do with interpreting, but were going to try and see what it was like. The suggestion is obvious. Only work with real interpreters, with or without professional experience, that can actually facilitate communication, not block it. There are not enough of them? Maybe there would be, if they knew that the conditions were right to do their job properly.

When the ESF finished I was not only disappointed, I was furious. Why? Because I love my job, because I know how hard it is to do it right and even more to gain people’s respect about interpreting, and chaotic performances such as these help destroy the reputation of the profession.

I decided not to volunteer again, and that is quite sad. I am actually thinking of giving it another go, if I see there is a possibility of doing it right.

Otro mundo es posible, aunque sea muy difícil, sobre todo con el diálogo.

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Peter Naumann


Dear Ms Boéri,

The AIIC postmaster sent me your letter of 12 June a few days ago, and yesterday it has been published. I will gladly respond to your remarks. However, in order to be able to comment fittingly in the interests of a fruitful

discussion I must first know with whom I am dealing: with a conference interpreter whom I can address as a colleague or with an untrained supporter of Babels whom it would be impolite to burden with technical arguments. Even after repeated perusal of your letter I have been unable to reach a definite


In anticipation of a brief reply,

Yours sincerely,

Peter Naumann

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Charo Baquero


Humildemente creo que el debate ha tomado unos derroteros que en poco contribuyen a esclarecer el tema central, al menos el inicial.

Se está tomando la opinión de un intérprete QUE NI SIQUERA ES MIEMBRO DE AIIC por la del conjunto de la asociación. Ruego desde ya a los colegas que depongan esta actitud. Parece que no vamos a sacar nada en claro si persistimos en esta confusión.

Si de la interpretación de conferencias con carácter voluntario se está hablando, y en particular de la experiencia en el Foro Social Mundial, vamos a ceñirnos a ello, si os parece.

La información de la que dispongo no es de primera mano aunque tengo testimonios de distintos colegas, de aiic, de otras asociaciones, y de colegas no adscritos a organización profesional alguna.

La opinión unánime ha sido de desaprovechamiento de los recursos. Es un punto que ha surgido varias veces en el debate. Allá donde ha habido colegas veteranos que han podido, de alguna manera, tomar la sartén por el mango, parece que la cosa se ha podido salvar; sin embargo, en las salas donde se ha librado a su suerte a colegas más inexpertos el sufrimiento ha sido mucho.

Permitidme por un momento adoptar otro punto de vista. He tenido conocimiento de Babels desde sus inicios y la razón por la que decidí en su día no participar es porque me parecía que de entrada el planteamiento estaba errado. Y me explico. Me parece estupendo trabajar como voluntario en cualquier evento, y de hecho somos numerosos los intérpretes de aiic que lo venimos haciendo desde hace años. Preguntad sino a Amnistía Internacional quién se hace cargo de la interpretación en sus asambleas.

La cuestión es que trabajar como voluntario, en mi opinión, significa no cobrar pero sí cumplir con la función encomendada. Los servicios de interpretación, como todos los participantes en este foro sabrán probablemente, es algo complejo de organizar. Tan complejo que ni tan siquiera muchos colegas que llevan años de ejercicio se atreven con una reunión que rebase los tres idiomas, no digamos con un evento de la magnitud de un Foro Social Mundial. Son numerosos los datos que se han de conocer, y de antemano: combinaciones lingüísticas de los profesionales, nivel de experiencia (en el caso de los voluntarios), horarios de las reuniones, régimen lingüístico (idiomas activos y pasivos); número de salas; lugar concreto de cada reunión; dotación en medios técnicos de cada sala y disponibilidad, etc. Estos son mínimos y francamente cuando vi como se estaba organizando Babels comprendí que iba a resultar imposible obtener esta información, luego iba a resultar imposible ofrecer un servicio de interpretación digno. Entendiendo por digno, que cumpliera mínimamente el propósito de la interpretación que es ayudar a que personas de diferentes idiomas se entiendan.

El eco que me llegó a través de la prensa era de triunfalismo cuando el testimonio de los colegas que habían vivido el Foro en vivo y en directo, incluso los más optimistas, era de frustración cuando no de franco enfado por la desorganización reinante. No me pareció razonable dirigirme a Babels con una propuesta en franca contradicción con su filosofía de lo que es interpretar, aunque de forma voluntaria.

La única solución que se me ocurre es que se confíe la organización de los servicios a profesionales, y de hecho hice personalmente esta propuesta a Cándido Grzybowski (uno de los fundadores y organizadores del Foro) en Barcelona, durante el Fórum Universal de las Culturas, y a Bernard Cassen (director de Le Monde Diplomatique y miembro de Attac-Francia) en Sevilla; incluso me ofrecí a participar en ello y les hice entrega de una tarjeta. Me refiero me ofrecí, de forma gratuita, claro. Porque como decía al principio en aiic por suerte somos muchos los que acudimos cuando se piden voluntarios, aunque eso sí, para reuniones organizadas por personas, colegas en general, que tienen experiencia en la constitución de equipos. Puedo citaros varios y no pocos casos en los que he participado personalmente, como intérprete y como intérprete asesor, encargado de la contratación y responsable en última instancia de los servicios de interpretación (no es éste un foro para colgarse medallas).

Una cosa es poner tu tiempo y todas tus facultades al servicio de una causa noble y otra muy distinta desperdiciar el tiempo e incluso desprestigiar la profesión. Porque una cosa es trabajar gratis y otra muy distinta dar gato por liebre. Comprendo que cuando uno no tiene dinero eche mano de voluntarios, lo que entiendo menos es que los voluntarios piensen que solo con voluntarismo se puede interpretar, o hacer cualquier otra cosa. Uno de los ejemplos que he leído en las numerosas contribuciones es el de la persona que no tiene medios para contratar a una enfermera y acude a un voluntario. Yo también lo haría, pero me aseguraría antes de que ese voluntario o voluntaria conoce la profesión de enfermería antes confiarle a mi madre o mi hija.

Para acabar, os ofrezco sinceramente mi colaboración aunque supeditada a que sean profesionales de la interpretación los que se ocupen de los servicios de interpretación y profesionales de la traducción los que lo hagan de los servicios de traducción. Estoy segura de que de esta manera las organizaciones se podrán ahorrar dinero, aprovechar los recursos humanos disponibles, y los colegas de aiic estaremos encantados, como siempre, de ayudar en sus comienzos a los colegas principiantes o menos experimentados. También tenemos una larga tradición en la materia.

Otro mundo es posible.

Charo Baquero (Sevilla)

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Julie Boéri


Cher Peter Nauman,

Vous me permettrez de douter un tant soit peu de votre soucis de qualité de l’interprétation au Forum Social ou ailleurs. Pourquoi ne vous insurgez-vous pas contre le bénévolat qui assure l'interprétation dans les commissariats, les tribunaux, les hôpitaux, etc. dans les pays où la profession de l'interprète social n'est pas reconnue?

Mais bien entendu!!! Le sort des immigrés et des demandeurs d’asile est tellement moins précieux que “the exquisite Portuguese of the doyen of Brazilian conference interpreters, (…) the sophisticated simplicity of Antônio Machado (…), the tropically colourful yet very French clarté of Sieni Maria Campos (…), the cool virtuosity of Suzana Mizne (…), the conversational tone of Patrick Wuillaume (…), the structured brio of Sérgio Xavier Ferreira (…) and the discreet elegance of David Hathaway (…)”.

Quand la vie et les droits de ces minorités grandissantes sont remis entre les mains de bénévoles qui n’ont pas forcément de formation, il y a personne pour s'insurger dans Communicate! Du haut de votre tour de marbre, qu’importe ce qui se passe dans les bas-fonds de la profession ?!

Espérons que partout où l’injustice fait rage, il y ait des iniciatives de bénévoles. Bien qu’improvisées et imparfaites, elles font face à une responsabilité sociale contrairement aux corporations de professionnels dont le seul but et de protéger le marché à des tarifs irresponsables qui remplissent le portefeuille d'une minorité et font le malheur d'une majorité.

Ce que vous ne semblez pas comprendre c’est que les communautés de traducteurs, interprètes, linguistes, journalistes, qui participent à Babels, Traduttori per la pace ou autres, créent des alternatives dans un espace où votre bible du marché n’a pas sa place.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de vos leçons car Babels ne vous a pas attendu pour se remettre en question, pour prendre conscience de ses lacunes et beaucoup de professionnels engagés apportent tout ce qu’ils peuvent pour faire évoluer le projet dans le bon sens; mais ce n’est pas un débat que Babels doit avoir ici.

Mettez en pratique vos proverbes Monsieur Nauman « Cordonnier, mêle-toi de ta pantoufle! » : qu’AIIC s’occupe de son business et que Babels s’occupe de ceux qui ont besoin d’elle dans le cadre du Forum. On a pas besoin, ni envie que vous veniez nous organiser, merci bien!

Enfin, je trouve que vous vous emmêlez complètement les pinceaux entre engagement des interprètes et subjectivité dans la cabine. On a pas besoin de lire le Code d'éthique professionnelle de l’AIIC pour savoir qu’il faut chercher à être fidèle au message de l'orateur. Cependant, permettez-moi encore une fois de douter de votre capacité à être neutre dans la cabine ou ailleurs, c’est d’une naïveté croustillante, surtout quand on voit comment vous traduisez Babels en insultes (ce qu’AIIC n’a pas pensé bon de censurer d’ailleurs).

Cette culture que vous étalez comme de la confiture avec vos citations savantes, ainsi que votre définition de l’interprète, ça sent le billet de dollar à plein nez, l’élitisme, l’arrogance et le mépris. Mettez à jour vos lectures avec Bourdieu, Derrida, Foucault, ça devrait éclairer votre lanterne.

Merci bien pour vos conseils de formation dans les Grandes Écoles d’Interprétation quand nous savons tous qu’elles ne fabriquent que des machines à interpréter pour le marché alors que d’autres écoles forment, dans l’ombre, des interprètes pour la société, des interprètes-citoyens conscients de leur responsabilité sociale.

Julie Boéri. Auteur de l’article que vous critiquez dans votre essai calomnique et que vous avez été incapable de comprendre du haut de votre arrogance et corporatisme.

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Mark Panzner


I have looked at this webpage and read some of the contributions: Obviously, Peter Naumann's contribution is not the most helpful.

As for the Social Forum, I have personnally had the chance to observe good interpretation being done in Paris as well as London. There might have been problems, but mainly in the conditions the volunteers were working in: In Paris, p.e., there were too little interpreters to German. Are we going to blame Babels for that?


If you know another (volunteer?) group doing work at the same level with that much work done at one time ("several" hundred interpreters, at least), tell us. Everybody would be eager to learn about!



Mark Panzner

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Resulta muy grato leer un comentario así en el sitio de Aiic. Sin duda, esta organización conoce bien no sólo la interpretación como actividad, sino la interpretación en los foros sociales. Recuerdo en particular el Foro Social Europeo de Florencia, el primero de los foros sociales europeos, en el que la mayoría de los intérpretes eran voluntarios, pero había algunos contratados de Aiic. Concretamente, se los había contratado para las sesiones plenarias. Por razones que desconozco, una de las sesiones plenarias no se celebró en la sala prevista originalmente. Los intérpretes de Aiic, argumentando que se los había contratado para interpretar en una sala específica, no interpretaron esta sesión plenaria, así que al final la interpreté yo (que, pese a ser voluntario, soy intérprete profesional). Esto me pareció una falta de profesionalidad muy grave que, de repetirse, dejaría en entredicho el férreo código deontológico de la Asociación.

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This is what happened to Nomad in Porto Alegre, from Thanasis Chrysos' point of view:

To cut a long story short (if you don't have the time to read it all), what happened is that they are creating an interpreting system from scratch and the consoles had not been made in time. Thus, they had to improvise.

It seems, too, that they are now trying very hard to create reliable consoles for future Social Forums.

Here are some extracts of what the Nomadas have entitled "The Revelation of the Disaster" (more info available in their webpage):

The date for delivery of the equipment had been set to January the 20th (the Forum began on the 27th). [...]

Given that the delivery of the rest of the equipment (consoles and transmitters) was delayed, on Saturday the 22th a meeting was held, among the person in charge of the Communications section, Nomad Brazil and Nomad International, in which it was discovered that only about 10 out of the 130 required transmitters were ready, and 5-6 consoles! The circuits for both were constructed and were in the cooperative, but they were not assembled.

In essence, four days before the beginning, they realized that there was no equipment. The situation was critical and required special measures to be taken.

The proposal of Nomad Brazil was for the Forum to provide more volunteers that could help in assembling the transmitters, so that the cooperative could devote itself completely to assembling the consoles. My own proposal was to abandon the construction of the consoles immediately and do the relay using radios, and to give absolute priority to constructing the transmitters in the cooperative, due to that we should have the equipment early enough to have time to do the installation.

[...] and comradely trust in Nomad Brazil functioned, and the first solution was selected. Moreover, two members of N.I. were to go to the factory the next day, to do an autopsy on the situation.

The plan was a complete failure: [...]There were two possible solutions, the one using computers (we would use the sound cards that we already had, four per computer, as preamplifiers) and the second using sound equipment (mixers or pre-amplifiers). We decided to go for both in parallel. The reason was [...]

What went wrong

The Porto Alegre case gives many and useful conclusions to use for the next attempts. The positive in the whole procedure was that there was decision to apply alternative techniques, and there was action to that direction. The negative was of course the failure of the whole attempt. Below, we give the reasons, according to our opinion, for that failure: The basic reason was that the ones responsible in the organizing committee for managing the whole procedure did not have the technical knowledge required to cope with that duty. [...]

Furthermore, it is important that in spite of the creation of a team named “Nomad” in Brazil, the reality is that, during the whole process, but even more after the results, there was and is no communication, common political agreement or common sense of identity between the Brazilian part and the hard core of Nomad International (even Brazilians that take part in the electronic mailing list of Nomad International do not have contact with Nomad Brazil) [...]

Thanasis Chrysos, Greek Social Forum

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Dear Marco Antonio,

I do not agree on what you say on interpreting and ideology. Please allow me to clarify my point of view on this subject:

There are several authors who, in translation and interpreting studies, have pointed to the indissoluble link between language and ideology and its implications in translation (Hatim and Mason, Venutti, Von Flotow, Baker). In the words of Hatim and Mason (1995:206)

"…translators and other professionals, who deal with language amid such complex social relations, cannot cease to be aware of the linguistic implications of the fact that the capacity to use certain genres, discourses, etc. becomes an instrument of power".

The genres and discourses dominant in the market, including the most apparently formal or technical ones, are imbued with the ideology of the dominant discourse. Thus, to prepare students to translate outside the market as well, entails a pedagogical labour incorporating other discourse. Thus, a student accustomed to interpreting speeches by the European commissioner Pascal Lamy will have difficulties in interpreting those of José Bové, though both apparently treat of the same matters. Another, habituated to translate franchise contracts, will perhaps fail to encounter the right lexical options to translate a text on awareness of fair trade – on account not so much of terminology as of ideological barriers. When it comes to taking lexical decisions the students, oriented by their teachers, are guided by the idiomatic principle of what “sounds right” – which, in the case of the most markedly ideological discourse, is too often confused with what the single thought system understands as being politically correct.

Hatim and Mason (1995:206) also note:

The linguistic decisions that we take systematically inevitably rest upon a classification of reality, previous and ideological. The content of what we do with language is a reflection of ideology, on both the lexical-semantic and the grammatical-syntactic level.

Teacher often note students’ reticence in using certain words or expressions ideologically marked in a sense contrary to the habitual one, so that a discourse advocating rupture with the present model of society may be translated, in the best of cases, along reformist lines in the target language. In a recent class it was observed how, in exercises of consecutive interpreting, two students interpreting the same discourse omitted the same datum, in this case an historical reference. The crimes of the Nazis being enumerated, the text referred to the massacre of six million Jews, the fifth part of the Polish population, and 25 million Russians. The last figure was omitted in both cases, one student affirming he had doubted what he had heard, though it is just as historical as the other two. Such an example shows to what extent two speakers may find themselves in unequal conditions with an interpreter, according to whether they adhere to the dominant line of thought, and version of history.

Obviously, not all the responsibility for such shortcomings can be placed on the teaching institutions. But, when the single thought system finds uninhibited expression in all areas (communications media, but also university lecture halls, and supposedly scientific books on economics - in reality charged with ideology, as indicated by Stiglitz), we may ask whether the time has not come for critical thought, as well, to have a space in the teaching material to be translated or interpreted, and in the form of approach to this task.

Thank you ;-)

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How about sending our calls for volunteers to retired interpreters?

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Dear people of the AIIIC Forum,

Here are the two suggestions I posted in the Babels Forum. I want to say too that I consider it essential that more professional interpreters join Babels:

We have done some things to improve quality, I would like to add.

Many people are working on the lexicons, so that newbies go into the booth having done their homework, which I think is essential.

Others have created DVDs so that people could practice, or at least know what they can expect before getting into the booth, and back out in time if they find it too difficult.

The Nomad folks are working very hard now. Have a little faith in them, it takes time to develop an interpreting system from scratch, if you are a volunteer and you have to work in the office during the day.

I think the problem here is that Brazil went especially wrong, I don't know why because I wasn't there.

Here are my two suggestions:

1. We could ask for people to actually prove they are fourth-year students. If they are first-year students they can help with the organising, or the lexicons, or translating... whatever. If the first-year student is some born interpreter, let her prove it first. I don't think it can take long for a more experienced interpreter to see if that person can be put in a booth or not. I think this is already being thought of by the DVD people. We could think of other ways to improve the selection process, bearing in mind, too, that we are all volunteers, we have our regular jobs, and we cannot spend weeks listening to people interpreting. We would need more support from Universities to do this properly.

2. We have to find a way to make people accountable for what they do. With this I mean that apparently a very small percentage of people come as interpreters to Social Forums and either do not go to all the conferences they are supposed to interpret in or take the money for the trip and disappear. I think this is being taken care of by giving the money back on the last day and in London organisers made sure the volunteers were indeed in the booth they had been assigned. Another idea would be to ask for more information on the volunteers (the school they come from, etc.). Maybe this could be added to the registration form?

I would also like to say, in reply to Naumann, that the selection of interpreters is usually done by geographical area, trying to pay as few plane tickets as possible. This is easier when there are interpreting schools in the city where the Forum takes place. I hope this will be the case in Barcelona, I ignore whether there are interpreting schools in Porto Alegre.

Another World is Possible.

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Jesús de Manuel


Mercedes, yo también estuve en París, pero debimos estar en dos París diferentes porque para mí, pese a los inevitables problemas que comporta organizar a 1000 intérpretes en más de 50 seminarios a la vez, la experiencia fue sumamente grata y estimulante. Supongo que depende, como dice Galeano, del punto de vista (para una lombriz de tierra, dice él, un plato de espagueti es una orgía).

Permitidme retomar sólo una idea de nuestro artículo (v. mensaje de María más arriba) destinada quien no tenga tiempo o ganas de leerlo entero. Ahí se resume nuestra filosofía (como miebros de Ecos y Babels) del voluntariado en interpretación:

Parafraseando a García Márquez, los globalizadores tienen quien los comunique y los remuneran bien. Los globalizados y los altermundistas sólo pueden contar con nuestra solidaridad, con las redes que podamos crear desde cualquier punto del globo.

Claro que la solidaridad no se impone, hay que aprender a degustarla (v. Adela Cortina, Ciudadanos del Mundo) y much@s babelit@s y "ecolaris" ya la degustan, con fruición por cierto. Hasta donde yo veo, la mayoría de los que la prueban repiten. Debemos tener algo de lombriz l@s 10.000 voluntari@s de Babels.

Otra interpretación es posible y se está haciendo realidad.

Es cierto, lo hemos visto con nuestros ojos, por increíble que os parezca hay vida más allá del mercado (blanco, gris o amarillo)

Jesús de Manuel

Profesor de interpretación e intéprete profesional

Miembro de Ecos, Traductores e Intérpretes por la Solidaridad

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I agree, Miriam, for once.

I think the Olympics people do have the money, although I would have to read some more on the subject to be sure of what I am saying (if anyone knows more about this feel free to reply).

However, Babels is not the Olympics.

This debate about paying or using volunteers is not reduced only to our profession.

Volunteer teachers of English to immigrants always get accused of unfair competition, because the government should be paying for the services, and there are many unemployed qualified teachers. I agree that they should, in an ideal world, but what do you do in real life when they don't? Many NGOs use student teachers.

The same thing happens with nurses. What if you're poor and you can't pay for someone who nurses your elderly mother? Shouldn't you do it yourself, or ask a member of your family to do it for a few pounds? Or a student nurse? Of course, in an ideal world, you would pay a professional to do it. But not everyone is rich, unfortunately.

It would be wonderful if in every developing country a professional nurse could attend patients. It would be great too if there were enough doctors to go around and save every child form AIDS in the world. But, as there aren't, children die every day. Missionaries and NGO volunteers do what they can.

Whoever doesn't realize that the world needs some fixing is intellectually and sentimentally blind.

In Social Forums, basically, what people do is to talk about ways to make it better. There are NGOs (all sorts: human rights, feminists, indigenous movements, ecologists, you name it) and also political parties and trade unions.

They can use every penny they have in saving people back in their countries.

I suppose I could start by quoting what the WSF is (in some of the messages below some people accuse us of being all communists, which goes to show that I do need to explain this briefly):

"The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, for formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action. Since the first world encounter in 2001, it has taken the form of a permanent world process seeking and building alternatives to neo-liberal policies. This definition is in its Charter of Principles, the WSF’s guiding document.

The World Social Forum is also characterized by plurality and diversity, is non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party. It proposes to facilitate decentralized coordination and networking among organizations engaged in concrete action towards building another world, at any level from the local to the international, but it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society. The World Social Forum is not a group nor an organization."

I hope this clarifies our intentions?

Otro mundo es posible.

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Here is an extract (already edited by myself) of something I have written for the Babels Forum. You are free to edit it a little bit more if you so wish. I think it is important that it is also published here, in good will:

I must say that, on second thoughts, I am glad that Naumann's article was published in AIIC's webpage (although the article is offensive in itself). This is a subject the interpreting community needed to discuss openly. It was about time.

I am also glad we can do it openly here now [in Babels' forum].

It might be too that they see us as competitors or something, they might not realize that we only work in Social Forums, or that they are free to join us and help us, or mentor us, or teach us!

It might also be that they have forgotten how difficult it is to get some practice when you are young, or that they are just, quite simply, mostly right-wing. Or, as Alberto says, that they fear we will eventually get organised and grow up (as I hope we will)?

They are right in that quality has to be improved, though.

We have to work on that. We have to find more professional interpreters willing to help us. And really, this article has done much harm in this process.

I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding for a long time now, and it had to explode somehow. Naumann's hate for us (for whatever political or professional reasons he puts forward) is also very clear in his insults, too. It's not only about quality, he has been deliberately rude.

Why, we can only guess.

I only hope we arrive to some kind of solution by talking to these people.


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María B.


Dear AIIC members,

I have posted this message in the Babels Forum. I hope you find it appropriate for yours too:

PostPosted: Fri Jun 03, 2005 7:48 pm Post subject: constructivitos

Maybe we could ask ourselves, and Naumann, and AIIC or whoever says there is a quality problem (and there indeed is one, in my opinion), what we should do about it, constructively?

Here are some suggestions, and I DO hope other people contribute with theirs:

1. Lets write an article explaining our objectives and publish it in the AIIC webzine thingy, so that they don't feel threatened. Like this they will know we only help NGOs and the Forum, and we will never accept paid work? An article similar to the Ecos one, for example, written by all members by means of one of the wikis, so that everyone can contribute and participate?

2. Lets inform as many professional interpreters as possible of our calls for volunteers (i.e. by means of different professional associations such as AIIC), inviting them to help Babels become better? We are already trying to put at least one experienced interpreter with each babelito in the booth, but we don't have enough professionals. We really intend to do this and we are doing our best. One of the problems, probably, will be that professionals mistrust Babels after having read the Naumann terror film description. Our image is deteriorating, we need some sort of marketing thrust.

3. Lets make professionals know that they are very welcome not only to volunteer as interpreters, but also as organisers, or as "guardians of the ISO booth", if they so wish, always constructively.

4. Lets not confuse politics with professionalism, on both parts.

5. Lets explain to them what Nomad is, what it was created for, and especially, that it is still on trial (I suppose this should be done by some Nomad expert, not me). Lets explain to them what Free Software is and what Phillips has been doing by monopolising the market. They might not even know what Linux is or what a wiki is meant for? This is why they only see the mainstream thought (Microsoft, etc.).

There must be like a hundred things I am forgetting, and surely many members before me have been discussing lack of quality and how to fight it. I am sorry if I am repeating suggestions that have already been made, but I think it is important that these people understand what we are about.

To do this we need to explain it to them humbly, in words they understand, right here.

We need more suggestions, babelitos!

Otro Mundo es Posible.

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Dear editors,

Thank you for telling us today where we can send our article to be published in Communicate next Autumn. We will certainly do so if we are indeed allowed.

I would also like to add that some of our members have proposed to continue a parallel debate in the Babels Forum at

Everybody is welcome to debate there.

I hope that, being fair, you will publish this message wholly.

Yours sincerely,


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Dear Prat, there is no dead ideology or ideal as long as there are people who are ready to fight for them. I understand you don't like it, but we are millions to believe that another world is possible (and, as Arundhati Roy said in Porto Alegre 2003, "it is on her way and if you listen carefully on a quiet day you can hear her breathing").

About venezuelan president, as far as I know he was democratically elected and he won more elections in the last seven years than any other latin-american president. Maybe you don't like him because he spends money from oil on health care, education and housing for those who never benefited from it, but that does not make him a dicator, I think.

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Mercedes Conde


Le agradezco muchísimo a Peter su artículo. Estoy completamente de acuerdo con él. Por haber trabajado en el Foro Social de París, sé perfectamente lo ingrato y frustrante que es encontrarse en semejante situación y me hubiera gustado haber podido expresarlo así de bien.

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Conxi Mollà


. 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?

This is the more humiliating bit I have read. It makes me wonder whether translation and interpreting studies should be removed from all universities. After all, what opportunities to improve or practice you have in the professional world when you finish? None. No, wait, yes you can spend a fortune in an MA in London (if you have the money), then go home and be a brilliant unemployed.

Well, me, I have not got that far yet. At the moment, I am just a perfect fool who should stay home not to confuse the world any more.

Thanks a lot for your "friendly" suggestions and insults. Although I share you view that professional interpreters should be a must in these events, I do not share your sarcastic remarks, they are really offensive.

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I see no harm in letting the kids interpret in social forums. Are you afraid they'll get good at it eventually or what?

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You still don't get it Danilo. And I don't suppose you will, as I suspect we live in totally different planets. This is all about HELPING people. It is not about YOU or ME, ME, ME.

(I am not saying this in a personal way, I am SURE you do perform a lot of volunteer work in your free time). If you are an interpreter, and you have travelled, and you know what is going on in the world, have you ever wondered what you can do to change it? Or is it that you think it is all OK just as it is? You must have travelled sometime to a third-world country and seen it for yourself?

I gather from your words that you have not read this article yet:

That is all we're doing: all we can do, really. And we would appreciate a little help. If not by actually doing the hard work, maybe by just leaving us in peace. We're investing our time, money and HUGE efforts just because we think it is the right thing to do. Is it so difficult to understand?

If your political colours are different from ours, then the most elegant thing you can do is to ignore us.

By publishing this diffamatory article here, all you are doing is getting those who really care for the well-being of less fortunate people upset, especially young people, who see the difference in treatment, as no-one has been asked to publish an article defending Babels.

Can we? Can we publish an article with OUR point of view right here in Communicate, next Autumn?

The fact that things did not go well in Brazil does not mean that they cannot be improved. In fact things went well in Paris and London, for example. Were you there? There was a huge difference between Florence, for example, and London. We are learning from our mistakes, and it is true we have made huge ones to learn from.

It is OK to say, here or anywhere, that things can be improved. But in the article above, members of Babels are insulted (if we are so puerile, why don't we insult back? Who is being puerile and sarcastic here?).

I cannot speak in the name of Babels, because we are all just members doing our best and I am not their spokesperson, but I think it is shameful that someone is allowed to insult members of Babels in AIIC's webpage, of all places.

AIIC should be promoting solidarity, not crushing it.

Otro mundo es posible.

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Marco Antonio Castilho


The whole idea of having 'volunteers' helping a totally biased event implies in having only people who share a certain ideology and are not going to be capable of impartially dealing with disagreeing views.

What makes a difference in the case of professional interpreters is their professional distance, their non-involvement, something a militant does not, and will never, have.

Untrained volunteers who lack the basic knowledge in their own native languages seems to be adding insult to injury when it comes to the lack of respect the invisible workers receive. As it was said, the "stars" of the show had VIP treatment. Did they volunteer to pay for their expenses? Did they consider staying at cheaper places, eating less expensive food so there would be more to share with the others or did they simply enjoy their 3 days of VIP treatment?

Why does this look so terribly like the bonuses CEOs pay themselves whenever the shut down plants or order that thousands of workers get the sack?

Yeah, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than the others...

By the way, I read a book about the brain - even though I am not a doctor - nonetheless I volunteer to operate the brain of anyone who disagrees...

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Danilo Nogueira


Maria, a place where there is money for airline tickets but not for interpreters is not my idea of "a better world".

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I think it is disgraceful to have published this article in Communicate.

Many young interpreters such as myself look up to AIIC interpreters. I would like to become a conference interpreter when I finish my studies, and I thought interpreting was not only about the money and the UN (although this image helps, I do have to admit).

Interpreters are people who understand different cultures and are aware of how the world really works. I think interpreters understand we have to help developing countries. This is why I have helped Babels and I will continue doing so.

It is a wonderful experience, not perfect, I agree, but magical nevertheless.

Babels has never interpreted for the Olympics, that is not true, Miriam.

Is it that there is a new generation of young, solidary, interpreters on the make?

I do believe that AIIC should encourage us to learn, practice and help other people who need us at the same time. It would be even better if we could do this alongside an AIIC interpreter. I had the pleasure in Paris of sitting in the booth with one of them and I learned a lot.

Every interpreter aware of this should support Babels.

In fact, I am wondering if there are any political reasons behind this article published in Communicate.

Another World is Possible

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No, I live in Brazil and the Forum was about trying to re-live dead ideologies, gloryfiying populist dictators, like the ruler of Venezuela, and such.

On the other hand, why did many of the VIPs invited to the forum stay in the best hotels and eat at the best restaurants? Did these also provided 'volunteer' lodging and meals?

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Dear Luiggi,

I thank you most sincerely for your message.

Does that mean that we, from our volunteer interpreting associations, for example, can also publish a whole article on Volunteer interpreting in your web, explaining how it does not take anyone's job away from them?

Thank you,


P.S. Indeed, as I said in my previous message, I know of some AIIC members who have collaborated with our association.

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In Ireland for the Special Olympics

the same scenario prevailed.

It was deemed more economic to ship in volunteer interpreters from outside the country than to pay professionals.

I would like to volunteer as a surgeon.

Are there any networks out there?

This was a choice of the organisers. They clearly placed it as a low priority. I mean what is a little mis communication among friends????

M Lee

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Luigi Luccarelli


Dear Maria,

You should be aware of the fact that the articles in Communicate do not represent the position of AIIC and are authored by individuals, not the association. This webzine publishes various points of view from both members and non-members, from interpreters and non-interpreters, and is designed to be an open discussion forum. Our disclaimer is quite clear:

"The forums, and other public posting areas on this Site are provided to encourage an open exchange of information and ideas. We cannot and do not review every posting made in them. They may include information and opinions from a variety of individuals and organizations other than AIIC. AIIC does not necessarily endorse the content of any such a posting nor guarantee its accuracy. Responsibility for what is posted in the forums and other public posting areas on the Site lies with each user. You alone are responsible for material You post. You agree not to post or transmit any defamatory, abusive, obscene, threatening or illegal material, or any other material that infringes on the ability of others to enjoy the Site or that infringes on the rights of others. You agree not to post any personal or corporate advertisement on the site."

I would simply add that many AIIC members do indeed perform volunteer work.

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Dear all,

If it is so clear that the professional members of Babels need help in making it work, why don't you guys move your ass and help us?

Is it that you are so confortable in your ISO compliant booths that you cannot spare 3 days, JUST 3 days of your high salary (the highest any interpreter can probably get) to make a better world possible, to help communication between people who struggle in their countries to keep their associations alive?

The "clients" in Social Forums are not businessmen or rich politicians. They are people who are fighting for their rights and for their voices to be heard, people who can use every penny available to save children from hunger, to stop the bullets.

Of course the interpreting is not good enough! Because not enough of you are here! YOU are not helping us! Or too few of you are.

We're students, we're activists, we're teachers, lingüists...

And MANY aren't even any of these things.

So please be constructive, join us, help us! Swallow your ISO ego and realize there are people dying in this world and you can make a whole difference. Organize us!

And, if not, just let us be.

We're doing our best out here. WE are loosing money. We could be doing some paid job, but we prefer to help others when we can.

If you guys have nothing better to do than to attack us by saying that that 1. Our interpreting is crap and 2. we're taking YOUR money away (how selfish can one get?),

please, please, spare just three days a year of your time and money to help this world become a better one.

Otro mundo es posible.

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