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Multilingual democracy experiments in movements: from transnational activists to local decision-makers

Final Report Summary - TRANSLATE DEMOCRACY (Multilingual democracy experiments in movements: from transnational activists to local decision-makers)

To what extent is democratic communication possible in multilingual societies and transnational deliberative forums involving citizens and decision-makers? This question is relevant for European policy makers as well as for citizens wishing to comunicate their messages in public debate about the future of Europe (EC 2008). Designed as a pilot study, the project has explored the relevance that activists’ innovative practices of ‘political translation,’ developed for transnational deliberative publics in social movements, can have for deliberative democracy experiments at domestic level, to include different linguistic groups in democratic public dialogue. The project has explored the diffusion of a genuine knowledge on political translation resulting from multilingual democracy experiments in European social movements groups with activists and local decision-makers in the United States. Based on a unique empirical comparison of deliberative forums and social movements in the United States and Europe, this project considers the impact of multilingualism on democratic deliberation in transnational, and in increasingly multilingual and globalized societies and deliberative forums.

The project had three goals. First (1), it explored the relevance of activists’ transnational democracy experiments at the empirical level of local urban deliberation and policy-making in multilingual societies involving a high number of resident immigrants. Second (2), it clarified whether multilingual organized democracy experiments, and political translation, may enhance inclusive dialogue also at domestic level. My study included the largest face-to-face-democracy experiment within the global justice movement, the World Social Forum, and two of its chapters, the European Social Forum, and the US Social Forum. I also compare two cases of local urban democracy in poor multilingual communities involving socially disadvantaged grousp and immigrants in California. I cover deliberation about the future of the EU and about inequality, immigration and housing politics in the US and California. By comparing deliberation 1) with and without political translation, 2) in the different national and trans-national contexts of Europe and the US, I have been able to rule out competing explanations for the effectiveness or failure of multilingual deliberation.

Based on ten years of field work within Europe and the US, this project provides the first comparative assessment that systematically explores the role of (linguistic) diversity and of political translation as positive conditions for democracy in globalized societies. In most political theories, linguistic difference is treated as an obstacle to democracy. The findings of my project show to the contrary how misunderstandings and linguistic difference can become a starting point for a politics of translation that fosters a more inclusive and effective decision making, and strengthens social movements and local urban democracy in multilingual societies.

I show how national US-based and European social movement leaders and/or local community organizers learning from each other in the global World Social Forum process introduced a new role for political translation within monolingual meetings at the domestic level. Unlike neutral facilitators, political translators are activists who address hidden inequality within deliberation by intervening in situations of ‘power-laden misunderstandings,’ in which dominant groups unconsciously marginalize others. Unlike conventional linguistic interpreters, political translators intervene in such moments to foster an atmosphere of attuned listening among all participants within deliberation. In short, political translation uses the transformative power of understanding to make dominant participants understand others. The paradox that I document in my first case study on the European Social Forum is that political translation was the easiest to implement in a transnational arena for high-priority deliberation at the European level where language barriers attuned participants to experience what I term a shock of intersubjective recognition, after realizing, often with pleasure, that they did not understand. However, my second and third comparative case studies on the US Social Forum and on local community meetings in California shows how political translation also works at the domestic level. What defines activists as political translators is their knowledge about power-laden misunderstandings impeding deliberation and the capacity to stimulate attuned listening—an experiential knowledge which emerged, as both my American and European case studies confirm, in multilingual, culturally diverse settings. I propose political translation as an empirical approach that shows how deliberative democracy may include alternative voices and innovative ideas (Risse 2000).

In theoretical terms, the lesson that can be learnt from the experience of multilingual deliberation in the European and US Social Forums and in local urban multilingual democracy in the US is counter-intuitive. Although one might assume that deliberation will be most inclusive when people understand each other linguistically, my empirical comparison suggests a different tack: By working with the empirical solution offered by political translators, I show how some transnational, multilingual social movements in Europe and local multilingual citizen forums in California were able to survive internal democratic crises—while other, similar cases, failed. Successful political translation, as used my Americans and European cases, is defined through its shock of intersubjective recognition which brought political experts closer to the ideas advanced by citizens and local civil society groups. Failed political translation, as it happened in one out of two comparative case of local urban deliberation in California, is defined by the self-affirmed attempt of political translators to speak on behalf of others. Political translation turns real existing linguistic difference into a tool to foster democratic deliberation and civic life.

Potential Impact and Use of the Results Obtained
The aforementioned results have important implications and can be useful for civil society practitioners, researchers and policy-makers alike. The most important impact of my work for research on democracy and multlingualism is the finding that explains how deep, political misunderstandings and divisions can be transformed into democratic deliberation and help policy makers and civic leaders build a dialogue with linguistically and culturally divided constituencies. First, in a moment of political crisis and popular unrest worldwide, this project advances ‘political translation’ as a perspective for scholars and decision-makers to consider the potential of democratic deliberation in multilingual, and increasingly heterogeneous polities such as the European Union. Second, the project fills a major gap in the literature on democratic deliberation: There has been a large theoretical debate on the equality and inclusivity in deliberative democracy but much less empirical work on the conditions that transform differences and misunderstandings into democratic dialogue (Polletta 2002). Linguistic difference poses a particularly tricky question here (EC 2008). I am confident that my findings will motivate further research into this direction.

By focusing on the diffusion of practices of political translation from transnational to domestic and local activist groups in two regions, Europe and the US, my research has thus pointed to a fundamentally new way of analyzing deliberative democratic processes: It has paved the way for a new line of inquiry in political translation-oriented research in social movement studies and work on transnational civil society. Policy-makers may rely on my research to include ordinary citizens as well as ethnic and linguistic minorities and socially disadvantaged groups more directly into specific deliberative processes about European and national politics. For example, policy makers and practitioners of multilingual democracy in the European Union may use political translation as a counterfactual tool of analysis to understand why so many deliberative forums and civil society organizations fail to attract new participants, and how heterogeneous groups can survive conflict and crisis.

Polletta, F (2002). Freedom Is an Endless Meeting – Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago University Press.
Risse, T. (2000). ‘Let's Argue!’ Communicative Action in International Relations. International Organization 54 (1): 1-39.

Project Homepage or Contacts
(Project Coordinator) IOF Fellowship
(26 May. 2010 – 25. Dec. 2012) Permanent Position
Marie Curie Research Fellow
Center for Democracy
Department of Sociology
UC Irvine
3151 Social Science Plaza
Irvine, CA 92697-5100 Assistant Professor (tenure track)
Dept. of International Relations
Mount Holyoke College
50 College St.
01075 South Hadley (MA)