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 Home > Event-related > World Social Forum > World Social Forum 2005 > Intermediary Reports

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Assessing the language issue for the WSF 2005 in Porto Alegre

(Date: 30 April 2004)

Assessing the language issue for the WSF 2005 in Porto Alegre
This proposal is based on a collective work made within Babels (

Generalities and report organization

Based on our experiences there are many aspects that we need to assess. All of these have political aspects, not just practical ones. As far as “reality” is concerned, many different solutions can be proposed within a given concrete budget framework and within a given set of different physical constraints. What we will stress, therefore, are different sets of political decisions to be made in order to provide the right solutions matching the right set of constraints.

Our experience tells us there are many aspects to assess when addressing translation within a Social Forum. All of these have political aspects, not just practical ones. The European social forum in Paris as well as the latest World Social Forum in Mumbai have both made it clear that translation is not a mere logistical or technical issue. It is an essential part of the process itself. It helps building the Forum in an open and inclusive way. The feasibility is not so much a matter of financial means, but a matter of political will. Indeed, by restricting the number of languages allowed to take part into the venue, we’re restricting the number of cultures represented. Restricting the number of languages compels the participants to master one of the mainstream languages of the venue, thus shaping and molding their very presence and political activity. Allowing more languages to be represented within the Forum makes it so that more people can take part in the event. Still, not every single language can be translated, and the WSF still faces a political choice on the number of languages. However, it can also make the choice to open up to more languages.

So, what we’d like to assess is that more than 4 languages are possible for the World Social Forum - within the same budget constraint as before and relying totally on voluntary work.

Therefore here are first clear decisions to be made to end this first period by June at the latest in order to be able to work in the best possible way:

- 100% voluntary work as far as interpreting and translating are concerned. This has to be clear by the end of this first period (before then end of May – beginning of June). Then a call for volunteers can be issued. As far as Babels is concerned the issue is not to provide 500 interpreters in 12 languages (this can be done, was done and is feasible) but to have 80% of all the volunteers coming from the “region” (Latin, Central and North America). At this stage, our contacts and existing coordinations in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and in the US prove to be positive depending of course on the fact that we agree on this.

- A methodology to select languages for the event have to be set openly and clearly (we are presenting one in this proposal) by the end of this first period, in order for all concerned organizations, networks to be able to participate into with reasonable time.

- That “translation” will be a single budget involving all related issues (from equipment to interpreters) and that persons in charge of this will be clearly identified in order to build a group involving all people of other workgroups in order to share the decision making process. Our experience proves one simple point: the sooner we reach a decision, the better. Most of the problems that occurred in previous Social Forums came mostly because this issue was not tackled openly from the beginning of the process. (therefore by the end of this first period – see above –)

We will divide this proposal in several parts trying to evaluate the general situation. At the end of each point we will stress our proposal:

  1. The number of languages
  2. The type of languages
  3. The rooms and the equipments
  4. A pre-“pre-budget”: Assessing the feasibility of the proposal.

Due to the short deadline to work on this proposal, the report will deal solely with general feasibility. We will need to work on a more concrete and precise proposal for a later date according to discussions that will be happening in the meantime.

Please note. This report will be dealing solely with the WSF as such and proposals made as well as decisions proposed are solely for the WSF. In previous WSF they were many “related events” such as the World Parliamentarian Forum, the World Union Forum, the Local Authority Forum and so on. These related events will have to be dealt with separately and with a different methodology.

The number of languages

The issue of numbers is clearly an endless discussion. The first constraint to have all in mind is that all languages are not possible while all languages should have room. Languages are directly related to many aspects of political life. Bear in mind that the same idea in a "foreign language" and in your "mother tongue" will never sound the same or relate to the same political and social contexts: one word or one concept may not have the same meaning and impact from one language to another, from one culture to another. We will need to set principles to work on this constraint.

We proposed in the IC in Mumbai the following ones.

The WSF4 in India proved that including more languages has positive impact on the size of delegations (for instance there was a clear causality effect on the presence of Korean and Japanese languages and the fact that delegations doubled between what was announced in the Chennai preparatory meeting and the actual WSF). The question of languages is directly linked with political decisions and discussions. These decisions are a way also for organizations to participate more closely in the process.

In order to make it real in a general way and within a global constraint, the following is a principle to deal with specific languages for specific events within the WSF 4-day period: Languages should be dealt with event by event and therefore beside one or two languages present all the time in all the translated events, all languages will make room at some time for other languages to step in.

Example: If we agree that French will be present in 60% of the events in Porto Alegre, this means also that 40% of the events will have one other language than French.

Languages are in direct link with mobilization in regions and with a political message the WSF would like to send. In the previous WSF in POA there were 4 official languages: Portuguese, Spanish, English and French. In Mumbai there were 14 official languages, 8 of which corresponded to the linguistic reality of India, 7 of them corresponding to political and practical decisions: English, Spanish and French, but also Japanese, Korean, Bahasa and Thai.

Therefore we propose that the number of languages for the WSF5 rises from the usual 4 to around 12.

  1. Acknowledging mobilizations in Asia. Since the WSF4 it seems clear now that the size of the delegations is in clear relation with languages. It is also true that the constant and growing presence of delegations from Asia is a reality in our movements and in the WSF process. We propose therefore that some Asian languages will be available in the next POA WSF. The exact languages and their number should be discussed directly with the organizations and SF processes existing in this region: the Asian Social Forum.
  2. Developing a virtuous circle for mobilization in Africa. Some informal discussions are being held in order to build the conditions to have a WSF in Africa in a near future. This matter is not only to make room for the “languages of the oppressed” versus the “languages of the colonial empires”, although it is an important notion to keep in mind, but also to open the gate for more people and groups to step in this process acknowledging the field work done by thousand of organizations in this continent over the past decades. The exact languages and their number should be discussed directly with the organizations and SF processes existing in this region: the African Social Forum and the FSMed.
  3. Acknowledging the WSF regional linguistic reality. In past WSF, the regional mobilizations were of great numerical and political importance. It was true in India, as it was in Brazil. Part of the democratization of the WSF is also laying in the acknowledging of various languages that would not in a normal international context be included for various reasons. A language like Quechua (or maybe some others) seems a good example of this situation. Thanks to ongoing SF processes like the Foro Social de las Americas (Quito-Ecuador) these linguistic realities will take a political space. It will be therefore possible to include one more language of the region in the WSF.
  4. Political issues. There are issues that are directly but critically linked with our “anti-corporate globalization” movements. One of these issues is clearly “open conflicts” in concrete geographic spaces. To discuss such issues in languages that are foreign to these spaces, does not give the same results as hearing the ideas proposed in the languages of the very people, groups or organizations of these regions. Take a "conference" about the Israel and Palestine conflicts, for instance. Holding it in Arabic and Hebrew does not bear the same meaning as holding it in French and English: allowing it to be held in Hebrew and Arabic does send a strong signal about our position toward this matter. There are many issues that are grounded in regions and have global impacts and there are many conflicts in the world also. There is no scale in horror and it will be counter-productive to “award” this one versus that one through languages. Nevertheless it should be possible to work enough ahead with organizations proposing activities to include languages related to special contexts such as these. This matter in particular should stress the importance to end this first period with decisions concerning what we proposed in the introduction of this report as far as decisions to be taken (the third one is of critical importance to this point in particular).

The type of languages

For the event

We would like to introduce the notion of official languages. A WSF official language is a language available at least in one room, at least one time a day each day of the 4 day event. It means also interpreters (2 as a minimum therefore) that are included in the global WSF team of volunteer interpreters, therefore sharing the part of the global budget with all the other interpreters to insure their physical presence during the event.

We would like to emphasize the need of a written translation team during the event. The discussions held during the two last ICs in India and in Italia about the different incidents which occurred during the WSF4 clearly demonstrate the need for the Organizing Committee to be able to communicate in several written languages in order to allow journalists but also organizations and networks participating to the WSF to read the statements made or press releases made during the WSF by the Organizing Committee. We can imagine fortunately that we will never be again in this type of critical situation. There are needs nevertheless linked with the work during the WSF for networks, organizations and so on to produce statements in diverse languages, and probably some others. The size of the written translation team depends on the analysis of the needs, but we feel that one team should be available within the WSF premises and directly linked with the Organizing Committee during the event in order to be able to produce written documents in all the “working languages” at a minimum (see below).

For the process

We would like to introduce two notions: working languages and communication languages.

Working languages. Clearly it is not possible to translate everything in all languages during the process. Written translations take time. One document translated in 12 languages mean 12 documents to be written. Therefore we would like to propose to reduce the number of working languages during the process in order to be able to provide to a maximum of organizations the ability to participate.

Any organization should be able to find the “fixed form entries” in all the WSF official languages (the names of the fields to fill, the close list of keywords and other items). Nevertheless they should, for the “variable form entries” (mainly the title and description of the proposed theme or activity, the name of the organization), have to give a translation in at least one of the working languages (the two if possible) if they are writing their proposals in one of the “WSF official language” that are not the working languages.

- What can be a realistic proposal is that the language of the country where the event is taking place should be a working language allowing people directly involved in facilitating the process to be able to write simply and easily and produce information facilitating the process. In the case of the WSF5: Portuguese. (It should be up to the actual Organizing Secretariat to give their opinion concerning this matter and say if Portuguese or not should be added to the working languages)

- What seems afterwards to be a reality is that English and Spanish are clearly the only languages that are reaching out to a maximum number of people. They are, for instance, the only two languages used in the internal IC mailing-list and probably for good and natural reasons. Therefore we propose that English and Spanish will be the only two working languages.

- It is also possible to help to any organizations that do not have the habit of international work and/or do not have access for diverse reasons to write in these languages, to translate their proposals from their language (whether and official WSF one or not: for example French, German, Russian, Greek, Japanese, and so on) into the working languages.

Communication languages. There are clearly documents that can (and should) be in more languages than the working languages. For instance the methodology for the WSF program can be in many more languages because it is making it easier for organizations to communicate within their region, country and network. These languages should be linked with the “Expansion commission” or the “Communication commission” work as well as with the other commissions and should be used aiming at simplifying the mobilization work in diverse regions. The choice of which documents fall into this field can be set very simply by the WSF Organizing Secretariat. There is no reason to be shy about this as many languages can easily be used for documents produced in order to publicize the next WSF.

For the website

The ongoing work of translating documents for the WSF website thanks to Transtrad can continue as before. Thanks to the concept of “communication languages” we can even imagine that some of the documents could be in many more languages than the actual ones. Transtrad is now in relation with the Brazilian secretariat which is sending documents to be translated from any of the actual four languages (EN, ES, FR, PT) to all the other four. The actual process is taking time (around 10 days) in order to provide translations including proof-reading of documents of an average length of four pages. The “working languages” are a proposal for the process (see the program methodology for the WSF2005) in order to cope with the necessity of rapidity of exchanges between organizations. The main constraint to deal with is “time”.

Special calls for volunteers can be imagined in order to ease the work of certain thematic groups envisioned by the program methodology.

The rooms and the equipments

There are several issues regarding the rooms and no concrete proposal can be made at this stage. However, a general principle of availing translation facilities in maximum possible rooms should be followed.

Access to equipped rooms should be discussed openly along with the WSF program methodology. When proposing an activity by the end period of the new method used for the program (August) organizations have to propose what languages they would like for the audience. And probably by the end of December they should have information about equipments available for rooms.

Nomad is a new tool experimented during the Mumbai WSF with two distinct aspects. The first one is around the digitalization of the voice signals (the speakers’ and the interpreters’) using computers and free-software tools. The second one is the distribution of this signal within the room or/and outside the room with different emitting and receiving solutions. In WSF 2004 the nomad system could not be effectively merged with FM based translation system for various logistical issues. A concerted effort should be made to merge the two systems. While digitalization of sound opens up several possibilities like archiving, web-casting etc, the distribution of translation within rooms should be made more effective with the use of FM technology, at least for majority languages.

Nomad is not a technical service within Babels and/or for events. But in the way of free-software communities, it is a project for collaborative work that can achieve its goals if and only if local actors are directly involved into it. Therefore before any proposal to be made, it is essential for the Nomad project to work with local teams.

Nomad is a tool box. In the Mumbai version, Nomad was built as a plenary interpreting system. This political choice should be reconsidered with the POA WSF organizers. Moreover, we should be able to propose multiple solutions corresponding to the realities, from numeric to analogical ones, and able to match all different debates situation within the WSF.

Nomad gives five opportunities.

  1. Reallocate the costs related to equipments, one of the main expenses of the Social Forums, to a wider range of uses, and even reduce the costs in certain cases.
  2. Have a total flexibility taking in account the sizes of the room, number of concerned people and so on: One solution will not fit all.
  3. Stream the contents of the events (seminars, conferences and so on) through Internet, like an Internet radio, in all the languages available.
  4. Stock and index these contents, giving the opportunity of much simpler restitutions of the WSF.
  5. Build technological experience with local and regional actors allowing them to use it in other circumstances.

Several possibilities exist to broadcast the translation to the audience in a room (radio wave – FM and so on -, wires, and so on). This issue has to be discussed with the Brazilian and Porto Alegre organizing committee. After the Mumbai WSF we have designed a micro-mini transmitters with a range of 20 to 25 meter radius which can be installed in less than an hour time in smaller rooms. The important point is that no organization participating in WSF should be denied access to translation system for the lack of equipments. The cost of small capacity FM equipments is absolutely negligible.

A pre-“pre-budget”: Assessing the feasibility of the proposal.

In the circumstances we are in at this time, it is difficult to build a real budget. Nevertheless some indicating figures or scales can be given.

The “Translation” budget in previous events was 1/5 of the total budget of the event. In the ESFs but also in the Mumbai WSF this 1/5 took total different realities: 900 000 euros for the Paris ESF and less than 200 000 dollars for the Mumbai WSF. The real “reality” is a clear message from the SF processes, thus clear and meaningful political decisions (see the introduction of this report)

What have to be included in the “costs” for volunteer interpreters:

- Travel expenses: A round trip ticket to POA.
- Accommodation. This will vary also depending on the cultural environment and local situation. In Paris 600 persons were accommodated in private home (cost 0), in Mumbai this was not possible and all were accommodated in hotels.
- Water. An interpreter is working if water is provided. This seems trivial but nevertheless one bottle of water per interpreter per period of work can come to 3 tons of water per day during the Paris ESF and hundreds of kilos of water per day in the Mumbai WSF.
- Food. Lunches have to be included for all volunteers (and not only interpreters). In Mumbai like in Paris all volunteers had a voucher in order to have some food in the SF linked food stands.

Calling for volunteers it is not a matter of “costs” but of “investments”.

- Building a WSF team of volunteers it is calling for people to participate to the process and dynamic, it is not hiring people.
- The call for volunteers is issued within the organization networks participating to the WSF, it is not printed in newspapers, it is therefore helping to make the WSF known around concrete concerns and can help to mobilize in regions were experience has proven to be difficult to mobilize usually.
- At a minimum a volunteer has an empathy and some interest toward the subjects discussed and he/she is a vehicle within his/her private network when coming back. This “communication” prove to be really important especially in countries or regions where the medias are either not talking about the WSF or either are deforming the meaning of the event.
- The quality of the work is a direct consequence of all the above.
- The main goal is not to become the WSF tour operator and ship people from afar but enhance the quality of the regional mobilization if not the local one. Informal trials (in a mixed political situation) during previous POA WSF proved for instance that it was possible to mobilize sufficient number of volunteer interpreters for the Youth camp needs (even local Portuguese/Japanese ones) and for some of the other needs.

For the equipment it is even more difficult to evaluate costs. Here are nevertheless several points that will have a cost.

- Number of booths within each room (there can be regular booths or table-booths). 4 booths mean 5 languages in the room.
- Equipments linked with processing the voice signal from the speakers to the interpreters
- Room transmission equipments
- Renting receiving apparatus lent to people or not, depending on the type of receivers needed.

Preparing for the WSF will have also a cost as the actors involved in “Translation” will have to meet physically two or three times before the event. These actors will probably be in several parts of Brazil, in Argentina and maybe few others elsewhere. Nevertheless even if it is 10 roundtrip tickets to wherever meetings will be held, it is still a cost to take in account.

A possible scenario to assess the feasibility

  1. Written Translation during the process. Groups of volunteer translators like Transtrad within Babels (1700 translators in around 20 languages but also working on the FSMed and ESF processes) can be mobilized to facilitate the needs during the process. There is no cost involved but time and of course a clear political message about the global meaning of the project (the call for volunteer work is therefore again a central piece). Time because it takes as much time to think and write a document, than to think and translate a document. This is why we proposed a dual situation

    - a small number of working languages for which at all time, all information exist
    - facilitating the work for other languages to be in the working languages.
    The volunteers are not only the translators, but also all the organizations which can be able to find from within people able to help them, hence the selection of the smaller as possible most “common” international languages.
  2. 5 languages at all time in all the rooms will need around 8 to 10 interpreters per room. The costs can vary a lot (see above) but let say for each room you have to talk about 3000 dollars all included (besides the equipment) for the whole duration of the event.
  3. For the equipment a huge variable is the “public address system”. The rooms will be equipped for people to be able to be heard (microphone and loud-speakers). This allows people with their natural ears to hear. If a given language is at all time (whether the speaker’s voice or the interpreter’s voice) in the loud-speakers allowing 80% of the room to hear then translation equipments will be needed only for 20% of the room.

We would like to stress one more time, that there are at this stage too much variables to be able to make a concrete proposal with real figures attached to it. We need to go step by step. In order to evaluate the situation we can nevertheless state that it is feasible to provide “Translation” if calling for volunteers to undertake this responsibility. The situation is not about so much the practical feasibility than political choices to be made, and for some of them rather shortly (see the introduction). 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.

To follow discussions on this topic: see the Babels forum.

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