Language commandos tackle Babel of tongues at anti-globalist meeting

Among the thousands of anti-globalists participating in the Fourth European Social Forum, one group of activists has arrived in Athens with a mission – to tackle the Babel of tongues thronging the event’s 200-plus seminars and meetings. «Babels» is the moniker of this international network of volunteer translators, who have taken upon themselves the task of covering the interpreting needs of the four-day forum, which opened yesterday. Bringing together a diverse group of professionals, amateur interpreters and activists with a common desire to contribute to anti-capitalist events, Babels has a network of around 9,000 members across the globe, and handles over 50 languages. «If people want to speak in their own language, they should be able to,» said Yann Brailowsky, a 30-year-old professor of English at Paris’s Nanterre University, and a technical supervisor of the Babels website ( The idea for the group sprang out of necessity in 2002, when organizers of the first European Social Forum – staged in Florence – realized that they had a shortage of translators, and also lacked the money to hire professionals. Because most of the activities are self-organized, the interpreters are sometimes left without information on language requirements until the last minute, forcing them to scour the seminar and speaker lists for hints. «We figure it out,» said Brailowsky. «If a seminar is on the World Trade Organization, we reason that it will probably need English, French and Italian translation.» From Florence onward, the Babels network has been present at successive European and World Social Forums, and a series of smaller meetings. «Most people in Babels are characters, it’s a mix of people with diverse personal histories, often from a mixed ethnic background,» said Brailowsky, who is himself of French-Mexican parentage. Though the Babels website server is based in Paris, the group has no official home, no established hierarchy and is run on a community basis. The website is essentially the sole point of contact for the group’s globetrotting members. «There is a general call by e-mail on an upcoming event… and if people are interested they register on the site,» says Graziella Schneider, a 28-year-old translator from Brazil. For the Athens Forum – the fourth after Florence, Paris in 2003 and London in 2004 – Babels will be providing at least 400 interpreters, including 100 recruited from Greece. Among the 25 languages on offer will be Serbo-Croat, the Bambara trade language of West Africa, Kurdish, and three regional languages from the Iberian peninsula – Basque, Catalan and Gallego, the idiom native to Spanish Galicia. Over 15,000 anti-globalists from Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and the American continent are expected to attend the forum, being held in the southern Athens suburb of Hellenikon.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.