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Translating Tweets from the Catalan Independence Movement

By Muira McCammon

Liz Castro (@lizcastro) on the Power of Multilingual Social Networks 

Muira McCammon probes the corners and crevices of cyberspace to better understand the political, legal, ethical, spatial, and ideological challenges involved in translating individual Tweets. She's interested in efforts to theorize the web as an increasingly multilingual space, despite ongoing language barriers and digital divides.  While exploring the interplay between censorship and social media, she discovered the Twitter feed of Liz Castro, a self-identifying "neo-rural computer book writer and Catalanist" based in the US, who as @11s2012EN translates Catalan Tweets calling for a new Independent State in Europe.

Muira McCammon spoke with Liz Castro via Skype in February 2015. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.


Muira McCammon: What led you to translating a Twitter feed? It's not a popular project.

Liz Castro: I just think it's so fun. First of all, Twitter is so multilingual, and there's so many interesting people. They're all Tweeting in their own languages, so I really . . . when I started on Twitter, I was mostly doing E-Book production.  So I was talking to people in all different countries about how they were creating E-books.  So, it seemed a shame to not listen to them just because they were writing in languages that I didn't understand.

It's the cool thing about Twitter, about social networks in general, is that you reach people all over the world.  So, as I started shifting my Tweeting more and more to Catalan politics, one of the things that always worries me about the whole Catalan situation is that because the language is so much a part of the struggle, they tend to publish everything in Catalan, but there are very few people outside of Catalonia who speak Catalan.

So, there's this paradox.  Language is crucial to them, to themselves, and to their culture, and so, it makes sense to argue about independence in Catalan, but part of winning independence depends on getting that message out beyond their borders, where the language is not spoken. So I sort of took it on myself to say, "Hey, this person did this. It's really interesting, and you should know it."  Since I have this whole set of followers, who only spoke English. . . instead of Tweeting at them in Catalan, I thought, well, I'll just translate it, to make it accessible.

MM: How did you  pick which Tweets and which Twitter accounts you would translate?

LC: There's not a lot of rhyme and reason to it. I try to Tweet things, re-Tweet things, or translate Tweet things that will resonate with an international audience, things about democracy, voting, religion.  Things about the nitty gritty about Catalan politics or things that are very, very local, I tend to not translate that. 

MM.: So, when you say you're searching, do you use the Search function and type in keywords and try to find "Catalonia" or do you pull from the Twitter feeds that you follow?

LC: Mostly I pull from the Twitter feeds that I follow.  I think the first day that I really did a huge translation effort was September 11, 2012. There were like 1.5 million people on the street, and I knew that that demonstration wouldn't get much TV coverage, much news coverage outside of Catalonia.  So I wanted to be able to share it.  So, I spent the whole day.  I was in Massachusetts, not Barcelona, just looking through those Tweets and translating them into English so that I could get beyond what the mainstream press was doing.

MM.: Last year, I started to use the Twitter handle @FRPolTweets to make the Tweets of Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Marine Le Pen available to an Anglophone audience. I've found that there's an entire language of I guess what I'd call political "untranslateables," words that have really presented challenges to transform into English. I'm interested to know if you've found more of a struggle with the size, the character count, or these individual words that you can't annotate per se on Twitter.

LC: Size is definitely an issue.  Length is definitely an issue. But all of the backstory is the hard part and the context.  So one of the things that I often do, for example, is, whenever people talk about the President of Catalonia, there's a hashtag for him.  It's #PresidentMas.  He doesn't have a Twitter account, but nobody in the rest of the world knows who President Mas is, so I never use that. I always use #CatalanPresident. Even though it's not literal, even though it's not his name, it adds something that wasn't there.

There are other harder things.  There's no word for Catalan "consultas" in English. Consultation, in my mind, is what you do at the doctor's office; it's not a vote. And it was made worse by the fact that Catalan politicians were using the word "consultations" in English. And so, it was really hard to say, this is a non-binding referendum, which is really, really long, when they were calling it "consultation."  In fact, they were calling it a "consultation," so that they didn't have to call it a referendum. These are minor but legal points that were tricky to translate.

MM: I'm interested in how you deal with a hashtag (#), because it's so unique to Twitter. Did you find yourself adding hashtags at all, not just changing them? Did you try to keep to the number of hashtags that were already there in a single Tweet?  What was your strategy?

LC: So there are two real uses for hashtags in my mind.  One is to join together or to characterize a whole bunch of Tweets.  So, if there's a particular debate in the Parliament and it has a hashtag, that's the hashtag that identifies all of those Tweets.  And the people who are following the debate will use those hashtags.  That's a way of getting more coverage.

So there's the kind of hashtags that identify the topic, and then there's the kind that are commentary. I almost always put those two in English, things like #fail or #shame or #democracy or #wtf. But that's only when there's extra room.

I'm also careful. One of the important things when I'm translating is to be faithful to the original text, because I almost never ask permission to translate someone's Tweet.

MM: You mention people reaching out to you and explaining that you misinterpreted their meaning.  How did they learn you translated their Tweet?

LC: Well, since I always translate the Tweet. . .  . . .  my technique was always to start with MT, which stands for "Modified Tweet." TT [Translated Tweet] always seems confusing to me, and then I put their name, so they always see it, using the @ symbol.

MM.: Can you give an example of an exchange you had with the author of a Tweet?

LC: Someone wrote something like "dressing up." I can't remember exactly what phrase they used in Catalan, and I translated it a little loosely with an idiomatic expression in English.  Somebody else commented on it and said, "Oh I didn't know that that expression meant this other thing."  They mentioned both of us—the original Tweeter, who happened to be a friend of mine, and me. My friend, the original Tweeter, said, "Well, that's not exactly what I meant."

I felt badly, because I don't like to translate, to add something and put it in their name, so I apologized. So the person who was commenting on the translation said that the original Tweeter was oversensitive.  I said, "No, no, no, they're not.  I want to make sure that I'm getting their Tweet exactly right, because I haven't asked their permission. . . I'm just saying that they said this thing." So, if I'm going to say that somebody said something without even asking them if that's OK, I want to make sure that I say it right. So, it was a little bit awkward.  Not because the person who I had translated got annoyed—because they didn't—but because somebody else got in the middle of the conversation and was criticizing them for being annoyed—which they weren't.  It was kind of weird.

MM: How have you been able to track positive responses to your Twitter feed in the digital world? Do you find yourself having exchanges with folks you have translated on Twitter?

LC: Oftentimes, they will reTweet the translated Tweet. They'll make another comment.  They'll say, "Thanks."  They'll follow me. I'll ask them other questions or they'll ask me something.  Or they'll Tweet more things, and I'll translate those as well.  Once you make a connection with somebody on Twitter, oftentimes, it remains way past when you translated that one Tweet, and so, you develop a relationship with that person.  There's tons of people that I know on Twitter now, because I originally translated their Tweets. 

Since the Catalan president does not have his own Twitter account, I often translate the Tweets of his press manager.  That has been a way to have, not any serious relationship with him, but it's a way of getting to know what's going on with that part of Catalan politics.

MM: Do you think online communities and social networks have a special texture in Catalonia?  How do you think Catalan usage of social media and Twitter might differ from what happens in the United States?  I'm interested in the daily usage of social media. If while you're going between Massachusetts and Barcelona, do you think your usage of Twitter feels the same?

LC: Interesting question. Like the Catalan Tweeting community, you mean?  You know, I think with any minority language, there's a certain amount of, like clubbiness, where we sort of belong together.  We have this thing in common, which isn't shared by lots of other people. And there's a little bit of that in Catalan Twitter.

I was thinking about this this morning, when you Tweet or speak in Catalan, it's only going to be Catalans who answer you, mostly. Whereas in English, you could Tweet and somebody could answer you from lots of different places and lots of different backgrounds. And so, it's often surprising when someone who is not Catalan joins in the conversation.

I know a lot of people who are interested in Catalonia who are not Catalan. So, part of that texture is a feeling that Catalan is like our shibboleth, our thing, that maybe doesn't feel the same in English.  I think English feels more shared with the world; it doesn't identify you necessarily.

MM: I think there's some fascinating similarities between your work and that of Meedan and a lot of other activist translation projects that developed in the wake of the Arab Spring.   Do you see any parallels between your work and other efforts to translate political Tweets? 

LC: I'm interested in the Meedan and other initiatives, because that seems fascinating to me, and I love the idea of being able to get beyond my language limits.  I'm not familiar with a lot of those groups though. 

MM: Within your travels and your exchanges within the Catalan community, have people tried to collaborate with you?

LC: I did another project called Catalan Talk.  It was a series of interviews that I did between January and July 2014 on Twitter in which I interviewed somebody every week, sometimes two a week, and I always interviewed them in English.  At the same time, I had five or six translators, who were simultaneously translating those Tweets into Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Dutch.  They were part of the Translator Chapter of the Catalan National Assembly.  And we had six different Twitter accounts and six different tags, so that we could keep them all separate.  At that moment, the interview was going on in English, but it was also going on in all of those different languages.  The whole project was an effort to introduce interesting Catalans to the rest of the world through Twitter interviews and conversations.  The hope was that there would be a lot of questions and going back and forth between people on Twitter and the interviewees.

MM: You edited and translated the book What's Up with Catalonia?  You did that after the Twitter translation project.  While you were translating the book, were you aware that you were translating a different medium?  Did it change how you translated?

LC: The main reason that it helped was that I had met all of these people on Twitter, so I wrote them and asked them if they would contribute essays for the book. I would say 3/4 of the people came from Twitter.

One of the things that I love about Twitter is that it really requires you to be concise and precise. And so, it's very possible that that has had an effect on how I translate. 

MM: Sometimes, you'll deliberately skip a Tweet.  It's impossible to translate every Tweet associated with Catalonia, right? 

LC: So I might skip the Tweet altogether, because it's just too hard to explain all of the details, the small granularities.  The concept of "Catalan countries" is a perfect example of a Tweet that I might just not bother translating, because to translate it means to explain 300 years of history, literally. It's also so long.  I tend to avoid the phrases that don't make sense outside of Catalonia.  So, it's also, that phrase is particularly politically fraught, because it implies a sort of imperialism on the part of Catalans, so I tend to not even talk about it. It seems like it creates more problems then I might be able to help by translating.

MM: There's this question of when to skip a Tweet for ideological or political reasons, and there's also the question of when to skip a Tweet because it can't be structurally or spatially translated into English due to character limitations.  Do you also skip Tweets if they have derogatory language?

LC: I definitely have an editorial line.  I generally don't translate nasty things, nasty in the sense of derogatory or deliberately mean. I try really hard to check links and make sure that what I'm translating is actually true.  

I think it mostly is about what I think is most universal and then, what is easiest to understand outside of Catalonia, regardless of the language. So, with the political situation, it's really complicated. There's a group today that is getting a prize, it's horrifying, they're getting a citizenship prize from the European Parliament, and their name is the Catalan Civil Society. They chose the name on purpose of course, but it's like a neo-Fascist, Unionist group.  They're terrible.  So, to call them by their name is to kind of legitimize them, so mostly, I don't talk about them at all.

So, you know, it's one thing to translate something that seems obviously absurd.  It's one thing to translate something that they honestly believe is correct that I don't necessarily want to give credence to, so, sometimes people complain about me only translating pro-Catalan stuff.  But to them, I say, "You can translate. Go ahead!"

Mostly I just use my own criteria.  I'm trying to think of other Tweets that I avoid.  Definitely insults. Innuendo. Things that are hard to understand if you don't have the whole context.  Things that I don't think are appropriate, for sure.

MM:  Twitter responded to your Twitter feed. You had some initial problems after you launched your project, right?

LC: I think it was that day, September 11, 2012, that first day I did a lot of translating, that they suspended my account for several hours.  So, I think that was automatic. I don't think it was anyone who reported me for spam or complained or anything.  I think it was the difference in my Tweeting that alerted Twitter to unusual account activity. So I contacted some people that I know through the my tech writing part of my life and said, "Hey, do you know anyone at Twitter, and can you help me out?"

I also used Twitter's commenting forums to say, "Hey, I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm just translating people's Tweets, and mostly they think it's fine."  Then, they reinstated my account. 

MM: What practical advice would you give to individuals looking to translate political Tweets?

LC: Well, there are so many nuances to a Tweet. 

It's really easy to misunderstand something, to imagine that someone is saying something that they're not really saying. One of the things that I'd recommend is to be really careful about assuming anything. Sometimes I think what I do is really simple and anybody could do it.  Other times, I think, actually, you really have to have a strong background in knowing who all these different players are, what the backstory is on each of the different political parties, and what are the different events and processes that have gone on to bring us to this point. 

Since Twitter is so much of a conversation, since there is a community and lots of people know each other and talk to each other on Twitter, it's important to be one of those people who’s following the conversation, because like any conversation, it's hard to jump in.  If you walk into somebody's conversation, sometimes it's hard to situate yourself for awhile. 

There are some Twitter-specific strategies, like when to Tweet.  If I Tweet early in the morning here, nobody in the United States is going to read it, because you're all asleep. I found the reverse too.  If I Tweet late at night or even semi-late in the evening in the United States, people here, in Barcelona, were missing whatever I was Tweeting.

I'm trying to write a book about how to use Twitter for political activism.  There are some tips about which people to follow, how to find people to follow, lots of things like that.  The project brings together these two parts of what I like to do: telling people how to use technology and trying to help Catalonia be independent. I want to get as many Catalans on Twitter, Tweeting efficiently, as I can, especially before the upcoming referendum.

Published Jun 10, 2015   Copyright 2015 Muira McCammon

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