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Translating democracy: how activists in the European Social Forum practice multilingual deliberation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 January 2012

Nicole Doerr*
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School, Irvine, CA, USA


Linguistic barriers may pose problems for politicians trying to communicate delicate decisions to a European-wide public, as well as for citizens wishing to protest at the European level. In this article I present a counter-intuitive position on the language question, one that explores how grassroots activists in social movements use translation as a novel practice to debate political alternatives in the European Union's (EU) multilingual public sphere. In recent years, new cross-European protest movements have created the multilingual discursive democracy arena known as the European Social Forum (ESF). I compare deliberative practices in the multilingual ESF preparatory meetings with those in monolingual national Social Forum meetings in three Western European countries. My comparison shows that multilingualism does not reduce the inclusivity of democratic deliberation as compared to the national context. In the ESF, grassroots deliberators work using a novel practice of translation that has the potential to include marginalized groups. It is, however, a distinct kind of translation that activists use. Translation, compared to EU-official practices of multilingualism, affects a change in institutionalized habits and norms of deliberation. Addressing democratic theorists, my findings suggest that translation could be a way to think about difference not as a hindrance but as a resource for democracy in linguistically heterogeneous societies and public spaces, without presupposing a shared language or lingua franca, nor a national identity.

Research Article
Copyright © European Consortium for Political Research 2012

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