Strong Roots: Translating as a Commons

In the commercial translation world, a text does not usually get due diligence during the translation process. This means that translators often lack of expertise in the subject matter, work under unrealistic deadlines and are paid too little for their skills. Essentially, all of these problems boil down to the fact that the client grossly underestimates the complexity of the art of translation. Nevertheless, there are moments when a project comes together in which all parties involved understand the importance of truly working together to craft a translation with love and thoughtfulness. 

This summer Guerrilla Translation has been entrusted with the honour of creating the Spanish version of the soon-to-be-released book Free, Fair and Alive by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich. The book is an encyclopaedic treasure trove of all things Commons, and it is clearly a labour of love on the part of these two authors. The translation will be funded and published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung as part of a larger campaign focusing on inclusive, commons advocacy beyond euro-centric perspectives. In addition to the Guerrilla Translation team, members of Guerrilla Media Collective have also been charged with the book’s promotional campaign, as well as that of the larger commons advocacy project moving forward. 

In beginning to work on the Spanish translation, we were lucky enough to have the chance to meet face-to-face with Silke Helfrich, a Romance language scholar herself, and spend three days workshopping some of the language to be used in the translation. Free, Fair and Alive’s approach to thinking about the Commons is based on sets of patterns of commoning, and it is with these key concepts that we began the process of determining the proper terminology in Spanish. The author was confident that if we could clearly understand and solidify accurate and compelling translations for these concepts, then the rest of the language would fall into place.

However this translation project comes with an unusual twist. Though the team is translating primarily from English to Spanish, there is also a German version of the book, Frei, Fair und Lebendig, which has already been released in Germany. The English is the original, but in creating the German version, Silke, a native German speaker herself, was able to fine-tune some of the terminology, using the precision of the German language to clarify key concepts. With this in mind, it was very important for the author to have a translation team that could take into account both versions of the book when translating into Spanish. 

So in the summer heat of the idyllic village of Hervás in western Spain, a team of five translators gathered to meet the author, begin to translate key concepts in the book and discuss promotional strategies for other language editions of the book. The translation and editing team is made up of Lara San Mamés, Sara Escribano, Silvia López and Susa Oñate with Timothy McKeon as the German-language consultant. Added to this are Ann Marie Utratel, Bernie J. Mitchell, Elsie Bryant and Stacco Troncoso as the commons advocacy campaign team.

El Alcornoque de la Fresneda. Photo: Timothy McKeon

We opened our collaboration with a small ceremony of intent and connection around a very special tree, the Alcornoque de la Fresneda just outside of Hervás. The 400-year-old cork oak tree stands 20 meters tall, impressively poised on a hill in the Extremaduran countryside. It seemed to be the perfect symbol for embarking upon a long-term project together, particularly a project that draws Commons knowledge and wisdom from so many places around the world and throughout history. Around this tree, we came together – many of us for the first time – and shared our enthusiasm and visions for the project. We took a moment to focus on the collective energy of the group and our shared sense of purpose, and with that, the project began.

Back in town, we wasted no time and immediately sat down to work, starting with Free, Fair and Alive’s patterns and principles. Five translators proceeded to discuss and debate for hours in three languages about the subtlest of nuances and shades of meaning in order to come up with Spanish terms that, in some cases, even improved on their English or German counterparts. It was an intellectual orgy for word-lovers. 

These discussions continued for the next few days as we picked apart and revisited words and concepts. Once we solidified the patterns and principles, we moved onto frequently used Commons-related vocabulary. We took the time to ensure that the Spanish would be easily understandable and, most importantly, that it would not sound like a translation. Again and again, we were struck with how special and unusual it felt to have such ideal circumstances, cooperation and support when working on a translation. For the author, the chance to connect directly with an eager and informed translation team was a great relief as well. 

Silke brainstorming with the translation team. Photo: Ann Marie Utratel

In the afternoons and evenings, we found time to connect on a more personal level, holding meetings and having meals together in riverside chiringuitos and tapas bars in the old Jewish quarter of Hervás. As enthusiasts of language and culture we shared poems and sang songs from childhood in our various native languages. We swam in cold rivers and laughed at our own bad jokes, talked about the local flora and fauna, harvested cherries and somehow seemed to bring everything back to the commons. By connecting in person and reflecting on the book together, the main message of Free, Fair and Alive became even clearer: We are all commoners. 

On our last day, before presenting GMC’s social media strategy for the launch and promotion of Free, Fair and Alive, we took some time to share with Silke our own system of commoning – the DisCO model as it functions within the Guerrilla Translation collective. We explained our ways of looking after each other and the collective itself by distributing and valuing care work. We talked about how we might go about growing our translator team in the future in order to accommodate more languages, detailing the “dating phase” that all translators must pass through in order to integrate into our commons, both contributing to and benefiting from our community. It was important for us to share and put into words our own practices of commoning and for Silke to understand the degree of dedication that we have for our collective and that it involves much more than just translating. 

Now that the translation and promotion processes are underway, it is clear that everyone involved in the project has a great appreciation for the very intense and personal launch that we celebrated in Hervás. The opportunity to collaboratively clarify goals, get to know each other, focus our energies and showcase everyone’s individual talents is very rare and special in the commercial translation world. The experience has not only been a chance to deepen our knowledge and experience with the Commons, but also to reaffirm our choice to do things differently in Guerrilla Translation and translate like Commoners. 

L-R Top Row: Timothy McKeon, Lara San Mames, Stacco Troncoso, Silke Helfrich, Bernie J. Mitchell, Ann Marie Utratel, Sara Escribano. Bottom row: Susa Oñate.

Written by Timothy McKeon
Originally published in Guerrilla Translation
Lead image by Ann Marie Utratel