Interpretation is a Political Act

This dictionary has its beginnings in the experiences of several women who have volunteered their skills as interpreters at international gatherings of the East Asia-US-Puerto Rico Women’s Network Against Militarism.  With each successive meeting, our understanding of the challenges involved in effective interpretation has deepened.  One outcome of this 10-year process is this dictionary, developed as a tool for consistent, accurate and appropriate communication among Network participants.  We hope it can be a useful tool for others as well.

At the Network’s third international meeting in Okinawa (Japan) in 2000, Yoko Fukuyama and Kozue Akibayashi first articulated what has since become a core part of our approach: the idea that “interpretation is a political act.”  The Network convened an “International Women’s Summit to Redefine Security” on June 22-25, 2000 — a few days before the economic summit meeting of G-8 leaders in Okinawa.  Our summit challenged the principle of “national security” on which the economic policies of the G-8 are based.

We knew that interpretation, which enables us to communicate across linguistic boundaries, was crucially important.  But it took experience for us to fully realize the role of interpretation as an integral part of our transnational solidarity work.

At this meeting, our interpretation broke new ground in several ways that brought us closer to this awareness.  An activist from Puerto Rico participated for the first time at the 2000 meeting.  She speaks excellent English but her presence and her analysis pushed us to think more deeply about the colonial underpinnings of language.

In a small group discussion on women and militarism, survivors of military prostitution from the Philippines and South Korea shared their experiences and knowledge.  We were able to work consecutively, interpreting their stories in Japanese, Korean, English, and Tagalog depending on the needs of group members.  During the public plenary session we offered simultaneous interpretation of English-Japanese-Korean for the first time.  Okinawa Women Act against Military Violence, who hosted this working meeting, had raised funds to purchase interpretation equipment necessary for simultaneous interpretation.  Most importantly, we were able to arrive at this perspective because of the knowledge the women in the Network had been accumulating and creating since the first meeting in 1997–the knowledge that not only our lives and struggles are interconnected but that our languages are also interconnected by histories of imperialism, colonialism, and militarism, and by increasing economic interdependence.

For us, interpretation does not belong in a neutral, apolitical realm but in the political realm.  Our conscious decision to approach interpretation this way means that we examine the power relations embedded in the use of language.  We understand that language is also not a neutral medium: like interpretation, language is located within particular social, political, and historical contexts.

We are working with English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Tagalog.  The Korean language was harshly suppressed during the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910-45).  Older Koreans who were forced to speak Japanese associate this language with these oppressive conditions.  Okinawa was an independent kingdom with its own language and culture until it was annexed by Japan 1897.  Since 1945 and the end of World War II, South Korea, Japan, and Okinawa have all been subject to U.S. domination, in different degrees, politically, economically, and militarily.  For women of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, English has been a colonial language (and Spanish was the colonizers’ language for centuries before U.S. supremacy).  These histories, as well as the global dominance of English today, mean that English is a common language among us.

However, in our work together we use interpretation to prevent the dominance of English and the marginalization of Japanese, Korean, Spanish, or Tagalog.  As an international network, we have committed ourselves to putting translation and interpretation at the center of everything we do, trying to allow enough time and space for clear communication.  We want to connect with women who are doing the day-to-day work in their communities, not only those with college education or NGO jobs.  Language is central so that all of our voices should be heard and valued.

From our experience, we know that interpretation must go beyond words and concepts, important and difficult as that is.  What we interpret are not just words: we are interpreting women’s lives and activism in their specific political and cultural contexts.  This means that we need to allow time in the agenda for interpretation, and also include opportunities for women to sing or dance together, to create bonds that do not need language.

Several of us who serve as interpreters for the Network live away from our native homes.  Yoko and Nobu live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Michiko and Don Mee live in Seattle.  We have had the privilege of education in our native language as well as in English.  We live and travel in between two cultural realms, not only geographically but also intellectually, politically and psychologically.  We are committed to using our privilege for building a bridge of solidarity for the women in the Network–a bridge that is multilingual, multicultural, and politically aware.

This is the most updated version of the dictionary.  However, it should be considered a work-in-progress, for we will revise and add more terms after each international meeting.  Currently everything relates to English.  Later we hope to offer direct translations of all the languages–Japanese-Spanish, Korean-Tagalog, etc.–as a way to de-center English.

We are most grateful to Elli Kim for working on the Korean-English segment; to Nher Sagum for Tagalog-English; to María Reinat Pumarejo and Raúl Quiñones Rosado for their valuable contributions to the Spanish-English section.

Don Mee Choi, Yoko Fukuyama, Michiko Hase, Nobu Tomita
September 1, 2007.