“Languages should be bridges, not walls”: Tlaxcala

by Fact International, January 8, 2016

An interview with Fausto Giudice, one of the coordinators of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity
Could you tell our readers about the work of your site? What is your site created for? What does its name mean?
Tlaxcala is a network of voluntary translators who publish their work on their own website. It was created 10 years ago by Internet activists who had the same need of organizing and rationalizing translation work. Very often the translator is isolated and works totally alone. At the same time the best translation always need to be proofread by a mother tongue speaker. So we created the network first of all to be able to organize cooperation between translators. We were three at the start, then five, then 10, and now about 120, clearly with varying levels of involvement. We publish texts in 15 languages. In almost ten years, we have published around 30 000 articles and documents (texts, images, videos and audios).
Very soon, when we began discussing the project, we agreed on the need to establish a clear base for our work, so we redacted a manifesto explaining our common philosophy and ground principles. We ask every translator willing to join us to read it and to tell us if he/she agrees with it. We choose the name Tlaxcala to vehicle following message: a people or community oppressed by an Empire shall never trust another Empire to get free. The Tlaxcaltecs were a people in Mexico who helped the Spanish conquerors to smash the Aztec Empire. After the work was done by the European “liberators”, they “toke care” of the Tlaxcalatecs, who were partially erased in their turn.

Our main aim from the start was to fight the imperial monopoly of English language on the web. This monopoly is not only linguistic: it’s cultural, it’s ideological, and it’s ultimately political. In fact the Newspeak used by the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 is English! This Imperial dominance is perceivable everywhere. Just one example: the UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. So there is an obligation to publish all documents in these languages. But many, if not most of, their documents are only in English and maybe French or Spanish, but not in Russian, Arabic or Chinese. Some very important reports on Palestine or Syria don’t even exist in Arabic. The same with many western-led international organizations, from IMF to EU. You begin to speak their language and you end thinking like them.
Adding to that, most English-speakers, to begin with the 323 millions of US-Americans, are monolingual, it means they are not able to read another language than English. This contributes to their indoctrination by one-way-thinking, what the French call la pensée unique. To translate texts from other languages into English must then be seen as a kind of humanitarian work, of therapy for brain-washed people, to help them change their distorted vision of, let’s say, Palestine/Israel, Venezuela, the countries of the former Soviet Union, in other words the Rest of the World.
Clearly, we cannot compete with Big Media, which have one million more means than we have: in front of this big industry, we are just craftsmen. They reach millions of people, we reach tens of thousands. Anyway, we belong to the global alternative media, which have a non-negligible impact on mainstream media and, consequently, on opinion building. The documents we publish are widely republished and make their way through the Internet jungle. Since we are all voluntary and our work totally non-commercial, this has both advantages and disadvantages. Advantages are our total freedom from any pressure and power. Disadvantages are our extreme poverty, which doesn’t allow any of us to make a living of this work, so we have to look somewhere else to find paid work. This affects the ability of our members to make a regular work under tight deadlines.
Some of the regions to which the material is divided into your site mutually overlap. Does this not create inconvenience when materials are published?
Any kind of categorization is imperfect. We made a mix of geographical and thematic division, which forces us sometimes to choose where to put an article. When we have for instance material about the conflict between Russia and Turkey about Syria, where shall we publish it ? In the section called Umma (the Arabo-Islamic countries, to which Syria belongs), or to Europe (to which Russia belongs), or to Universal issues (since more countries are involved)? We decide from case to case. This doesn’t matter so much, since people are more oriented by the tags we put to each article than by the sections. Anyway, since we prioritize analysis before “hot news”, our site must be seen more as a reference library than as a newspaper online. Articles that lose their topicality after a few hours don’t interest us.
Russian radical leftist writer Tarasov insists that the left must learn and use rare languages. He sees this approach as an instrument of opposition to imperialism. How do you see the connection between anti-imperialism and the support of rare languages?
There are 6,000 languages in the world, of which one disappears every two weeks. If the “evolution” goes on this way, 90% of human languages will have disappeared at the end of this century. In fact what’s happening with linguistic diversity is similar to what’s happening with biodiversity, with the extinction of species, which is accelerating due to global warming. So people should fight to defend and preserve linguistic diversity in the same way they fight for biodiversity.
To fight imperialism effectively, you have to know at least two languages, the Empire’s one and your own, and possibly one or two others, to be able to build alliances. We have tried to develop sections for so-called rare languages at Tlaxcala, like Esperanto (spoken by between 100,000 and 10 million) and Tamazight (spoken by 45 million, but without a clear status in the countries where it is spoken, from Morocco to Egypt)), but these sections are not so active, due to feeble human capacities. To be able to translate and publish in as many languages as possible is a dream, but we have to face reality: it’s difficult to mobilize people for such projects without other means than goodwill and a few computers!
Nationalist movements advocate for compulsory imposing one state language in the borders of their state. This principle is carried to extremes in Turkey; this principle is constantly defended by Ukrainian nationalists. It was an attempt to ban Russian language that became a catalyst for rebellion against Maidan in Ukraine. Do you see any alternative to the principle of compulsory official language?
The alternative response to an ideology cannot be another ideology, but reality. In questions of languages, which raise many passions, the only way is to check reality and to draw conclusions of what reality tells you. Children should always learn reading and writing in their real mother tongue and not in their “official” one, if you want them to become adults with a good command of the basic tools. Only once they have a good grasp of the basic tools in their first language, they can be introduced into a second one, and later a third one. Most countries of the former socialist block are bilingual or multilingual, so they should have more than one language as official and/or national languages. The error most nationalists all over the world doe is to make languages to walls when they should be bridges. Algerian writer Kateb Yacine once said: “French is our war booty”, arguing for maintaining of French as a language for Algeria beside of Arabic (and Tamazight, the so-called Berber).
Online translator Google is stepping up its capacity. More and more Asian and African languages come in its lists. Does this not create a potential threat to your project?
I only dream to see an effective and reliable tool for automatic translation, so we could be able to dedicate our time and energy to other, more important tasks. But it’s still a long way to it. As Umberto Eco explains, the automatic translators are fed with dictionaries, when they should be fed with encyclopedias. They can more or less translate simple short sentences, but for longer, more complex texts, they only make a mess. And to correct an automatic translation, it takes almost the same time as to translate it directly. Since we are all voluntary, not getting any money for our work, we have nothing to lose. So welcome to any really intelligent robot! Добро пожаловать в любой действительно умного робота! But in the meantime, we are in urgent need of collaborators able to translate from and into Russian, so any volunteer welcome! Just write to us