Speaking up for imperiled Afghani translators

Governments that sent troops to Afghanistan were quick to recruit local translators. Lured by high salaries and assurances that they would be protected from possible Taliban reprisals, many qualified experts signed on, risking their lives alongside foreign troops.

matt_zeller_janis_shinwariAccording to US army captain Matt Zeller, who waged a long campaign to secure an American visa for Janis Shinwari, an Afghan translator who saved his life, “American troops and diplomats relied on these men and women to be their eyes and ears throughout both of these military engagements. So it’s no exaggeration to say that pretty much everything the Americans did over there was thanks to a translator.”* Not every local translator who served foreign troops in Afghanistan has been as lucky as Janis Shinwari.

Although foreign troops posted in Afghanistan relied on the linguistic abilities, integrity, and courage of native translators, most of whom now live under the constant threat of Taliban reprisals, many of the governments that sent these intervention units have had less-than-sterling records regarding the provision of visas to the linguists who served them. Concerned individuals in various countries have launched petitions in Change.org to support the extension of visas to threatened translators and their families. Interested readers in The United States, Great Britain, and Spain can help convince their government officials to provide a safe haven for Afghani translators by clicking on the links below.

Change.org petition to British Foreign Minister William Hague

Matt Zeller’s petition to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in support of his unit’s second interpreter, who has been waiting for his visa since June 2012

Jennifer Eshaqzai’s petition in favor of her husband Fazil

Petition launched by Ana Ballesteros in support of local translators who worked with Spanish troops in Afghanistan. Support for these translators is especially urgent, as the Spanish government has done nothing more than offer equivocal responses to translators’ requests for asylum.


About Change.org (from its website):

Change.org is the world’s largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see.

There are more than 45 million Change.org users in 196 countries, and every day people use our tools to transform their communities – locally, nationally and globally.

We live in an amazing time, when the opportunity to make a difference is greater than ever before. Gathering people behind a cause used to be difficult, requiring lots of time, money, and a complex infrastructure. But technology has made us more connected than ever.

It’s now possible for anyone to start a campaign and immediately mobilize hundreds of others locally or hundreds of thousands around the world, making governments and companies more responsive and accountable.

We want to accelerate this dramatic shift – by making it easier to make a difference, and by inspiring everyone to discover what’s possible when they stand up and speak out.

We’re working for a world where no one is powerless, and where creating change is a part of everyday life. We’re just getting started, and we hope you’ll join us.

* From an NPR interview available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=241786392


English-language Wikipedia Blackout on January 18

I duplicate the entire message as received this morning by email from a colleague.

To: English Wikipedia Readers and Community
From: Sue Gardner, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director
Date: January 16, 2012

Today, the Wikipedia community announced its decision to black out the English-language Wikipedia for 24 hours, worldwide, beginning at 05:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 18 (you can read the statement from the Wikimedia Foundation here). The blackout is a protest against proposed legislation in the United States—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate—that, if passed, would seriously damage the free and open Internet, including Wikipedia.

This will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it’s a decision that wasn’t lightly made. Here’s how it’s been described by the three Wikipedia administrators who formally facilitated the community’s discussion. From the public statement, signed by User:NuclearWarfare, User:Risker and User:Billinghurst:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

On careful review of this discussion, the closing administrators note the broad-based support for action from Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States. The primary objection to a global blackout came from those who preferred that the blackout be limited to readers from the United States, with the rest of the world seeing a simple banner notice instead. We also noted that roughly 55% of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations.

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently,

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.

But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

The decision to shut down the English Wikipedia wasn’t made by me; it was made by editors, through a consensus decision-making process. But I support it.

Like Kat and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation Board, I have increasingly begun to think of Wikipedia’s public voice, and the goodwill people have for Wikipedia, as a resource that wants to be used for the benefit of the public. Readers trust Wikipedia because they know that despite its faults, Wikipedia’s heart is in the right place. It’s not aiming to monetize their eyeballs or make them believe some particular thing, or sell them a product. Wikipedia has no hidden agenda: it just wants to be helpful.

That’s less true of other sites. Most are commercially motivated: their purpose is to make money. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire to make the world a better place—many do!—but it does mean that their positions and actions need to be understood in the context of conflicting interests.

My hope is that when Wikipedia shuts down on January 18, people will understand that we’re doing it for our readers. We support everyone’s right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We think everyone should have access to educational material on a wide range of subjects, even if they can’t pay for it. We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA—and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States—don’t advance the interests of the general public. You can read a very good list of reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA here, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Why is this a global action, rather than US-only? And why now, if some American legislators appear to be in tactical retreat on SOPA?

The reality is that we don’t think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond SOPA and PIPA: they are just part of the problem. We want the Internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.

On January 18, we hope you’ll agree with us, and will do what you can to make your own voice heard.

Sue Gardner,

Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

The People’s Health Movement – a translator’s resource of international health issues

For translators who need to cite the People’s Charter for Health, the People’s Health Movement website offers official translations in thirty-nine languages. If you are looking for a translation or work in a language not included in the People’s Health Movement list, PHM invites your input. You may contact Pam Zinkin or the  PHM secretariat to check if a translation in your language is already available or to submit your own translation of this document.

The same webpage invites you to endorse the present charter and propose topics for the agenda of  the Third People’s Health Assembly scheduled to take place in July 2012. At this assembly, the Charter will be revisited to include new, emerging issues. PHM invites individuals and representatives of civil society organizations around the world submit ideas for the updated People’s Charter for Health to be drafted at this meeting.

What is the People’s Health Movement? In the organization’s own words:

The People´s Health Movement (PHM) has its roots deep in the grassroots people’s movement and owes its genesis to many health networks and activists who have been concerned by the growing inequities in health over the last 25 years. The PHM calls for a revitalisation of the principles of the Alma-Ata Declaration which promised Health for All by the year 2000 and complete revision of international and domestic policy that has shown to impact negatively on health status and systems.

Truth is Always in Exile: Presseurop on George Steiner, Josef Škvorecký, and Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká

The final days of any year provide a brief space in which to sketch out a balance sheet of the preceding twelve months and take stock of the things we are grateful for, the things we look forward to doing in the coming year, and the things we wish to improve in ourselves, our lives, and our world.

My year’s general ledger is a polyglot affair, just like my professional work, my shopping lists, my personal library, and my friendships. English is my mother tongue and Spanish is the language I use in my day-to-day business and personal life, but both are peppered with words and ideas taken from other languages I have been in contact with. Yesterday I popped a cut of meat into the oven that I know best as galtas—a Catalan word—but that my Aragonese husband calls carrilleras. I had never heard of such a cut before moving to Barcelona a decade ago and frankly I feel foolish calling it “pork cheeks,” the correct, if somewhat dissonant, translation suggested by The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX). However, “pork cheeks” is probably the closest description possible, as galtas (or carrilleras, if you will) are precisely the pockets of meat bound to the muscles of a pig’s lower jaw. Likewise, although I have always referred to any cooked fruit spread made from raspberries, strawberries, apples, or peaches as jelly, jam, marmalade, or fruit butter, I will always think of the same concoction made with apricots or prunes as lekvár (Hungarian and Slovak) or lektvar (Czech), the delicious filling used in many Eastern European pastries. If food is a slippery category linguistically, tools constitute another. Sometimes I reach for a screwdriver, but for no particular reason the next time I pick it up it has mysteriously become a destornillador or a tornavís.

I have a number of translation clients who shift back and forth between Spanish and English as they draft their texts. Although it’s much more work to hammer the hybrid syntax of their documents into proper English, I appreciate what these writers are up to. To the extent that their linguistic skills allow them, they are trying to make the most out of at least two ways of thinking and writing about a subject. I say at least two because the bibliographies of articles written by almost every Spaniard academic I have ever worked with back up Umberto Ecco’s assertion that “translation is the language of Europe.” I’m accustomed to proofreading bibliographies that document reference material in a number of different languages, a frequent indication that the translation into English that the writer has entrusted to me is only the final step of a long linguistic journey from a study of the existing literature on a subject to a mature, original idea. Maintaining both the polyphony of a writer’s references (whether they are clearly stated in a bibliography of a text or not) and the essence of his or her voice is one of the many challenges inherent to any work of translation. For translators working in a multilingual environment such as Europe, achieving this harmony is a primordial objective.

The references that support the arguments and ideas of the authors I work with are a never-ending source of personal and professional enrichment. Each is a gold mine waiting to be discovered. Behind what first appears to be a lifeless string of names and dates: (Till and Baack, 2005; Koslow, Sasser and Riordan, 2003; Stone, Besser and Lewis, 2000), (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002, p.169), (Kirchhoff 1979; Ilg 1988; Alexieva 1994) lurk theories of marketing, the mental calculations carried out by consecutive interpreters as they carry a message from one language to another, or, in Merleau Ponty’s words, “the harmony between what we aim at and what is given.” In a year marked by a relentless questioning of the central ideas that sparked the dream of a united Europe, it was a consolation to work with communications professor Manuel Fernández Sande on the translation of his conference presentation on the history of pan-European radio and learn that while Europe teeters on the brink of dissolution, eighteen radio stations in fifteen European countries were broadcasting 2,000 hours of Eurocentric news to over 15 million listeners. Thanks to Manuel, I have became an avid reader of Presseurop, the online news service of the pan-European radio network, which offers me a glimpse of the world from the perspective of journalists working from Athens to Warsaw. The editors of Presseurop are fully aware of the transcendent value of translation; their mission is to publish a selection of news, opinion articles, and even political cartoons produced in points throughout Europe in ten European languages. I can read a Presseurop article in English and with a flick of a finger, share it with friends in German, French, or Spanish. If 2011 has been the year to analyze the many ways that the European initiative has failed, may 2012 be the year to celebrate its many undeniable successes, among them a revolutionary willingness to debate rather than take up arms and a commitment to consider the fate of one’s neighbor as inextricably bound to one’s own. Presseurop is evidence of the common desire to heed the lessons of past disasters that makes Europe such an exciting place to live today.

In a Télérama interview that recently appeared in translation in the marvelous Presseurop website, George Steiner shares some vary interesting personal anecdotes about multilingualism, culture, and Europe with writer Juliette Cerf.  George Steiner is a polyglot from birth; he recalls his mother beginning a sentence in one language and ending it in another. His conversation with Cerf touches on multilingualism as a vehicle for physical, spiritual, and mental mobility and renovation. He describes the four languages in which he is fluent as, “my escape, my greatest joy and pleasure.” Although his parents were Czech, he lists his childhood languages as having been French, English, and German, and notes:

I had no mother tongue, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not uncommon. In Sweden, you have Finnish as well as Swedish; in Malaysia, people speak three languages. The idea of a ‘mother tongue’ is a highly romantic and nationalist one. My multilingualism enabled me to teach, and to write After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, and to feel at home everywhere. Every language is an open window on the world. This is in contrast to the grim attachment to roots advocated by someone like Maurice Barrès. Trees have roots; I have legs. And believe me, that is a huge advantage.

Despite his family’s flight from France to the United States during the Second World War, Steiner acknowledges an unequivocal feeling of cultural kinship with Europe:

Europe remains the locus of the massacre, of the incomprehensible, but also of cultures that I love. I owe everything to Europe, and I want to be there among my dead. I want to stay close to the Shoah, in a place where I can speak my four languages.

Steiner’s statement that “Books are the great bulwark of private life,” links the Télérama interview to another article that appeared in Presseurop this week titled “Sixty-Eight Publishers – books of dissent,” in which Petr Koura and Pavlina Kourová pay homage to Czech intellectuals Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová-Skvorecky.

Josef Škvorecký forged a career as a writer, teacher, translator, and editor after receiving his degree in English literature from Charles University in Prague in 1951. In an interview published in The Central European Review, he admits that his career in literature came on the heels of the devastating realization that he had no talent as a jazz musician, laughingly citing an aphorism plucked from William Faulkner’s “An Odor of Verbena”: “Those who can do. Those who cannot, and suffer long enough, because they cannot, write about it.” Škvorecký suffered ostracism as a dissident writer throughout the 1950s and 60s. Although his own books could not be published in Czechoslovakia during this period, he remained active in Czech literary circles and translated English classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Henry James into Czech.

As Steiner points out, a command of more than one language is an open window on the world. Like Steiner, Škvorecký had “legs,” which proved to be a strategic advantage for a dissident writer after the crackdown that followed the brief “Prague Spring” of 1968. He and his wife, actress and author Zdena Salivarová-Skvorecky, left Czechoslovakia in 1969 and resettled in Canada where his fluency in English and expertise in English literature qualified him for a teaching position in the English Department of the University of Toronto. As an exile in Canada, Škvorecký’s literary career flourished. A nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 is only one of the many honors he has received for his literary work. But if Škvorecký’s long list of published books was a bulwark of the couple’s new life in Canada, they remained emotionally attached and morally committed to the literature and writers of their homeland. In 1971 they founded Sixty-Eight, a small private press conceived to publish Škvorecký’s books and reprints of prose work by other Czech émigré writers. The project was launched with their own savings. Josef did most of the editing and Zdena typeset the books and handled the logistical aspects of the fledgling venture. They shipped books for free to readers living in Eastern Bloc countries, often camouflaging prohibited titles with false covers, hiding them in boxes of soap powder, and even sneaking them through customs in diplomatic mailbags. In 1974, Sixty-Eight began to publish the work of contemporary writers living in Czechoslovakia.

Sixty-Eight kept Czechoslovakian literature alive at home and abroad. As Milan Kundera was later to recall in 1989:

Virtually all of contemporary Czech literature moved into their tiny publishing house, which consisted of only two or three rooms – both the literature written in the country, and that written outside it. And because those two people, who did the right thing at the right time, are also excellent novelists, their publishing house has both moral and aesthetic authority, and I don’t know when any other Czech publishing house has had that.

For almost twenty years Zdena Salivarová and Josef  Škvorecký alone, working with a keen and youthful spirit under trying conditions that seem unreal to professional editors, have allowed us to remain writers in the sense that the European modern age understands: as authors of books. If we realize what it cost them in time, work, effort, exhaustion, we will understand that those two have, in addition to all the ways they served the Czechs, have also set a precedent unique in history: sacrificing a part of their own work for the work of their colleagues.

 Although relatively few copies of Sixty-Eight editions were circulated in Czechoslovakia, they were considered “bandages on torn wounds” by those who read them. As Petr Koura and Pavlina Kourová note in their article, circulating and reading banned books carried serious risks:

Reading and owning them was punishable by law, yet people borrowed and copied them all the same. Almost everyone who got any of the books from the Škvoreckýs still recalls who brought it to them, how much time they had to read it, which of the books they copied and which were confiscated in a search of their homes by the StB (Czechoslovakia’s State Security Police).

By the time a decision was made to shut down the press in 1994, Sixty-Eight had published a total of 224 titles in small editions by Czech and Slovak writers, as well as a few by other writers whose work was centered on some aspect of Czechoslovakian history or culture. Czech President Vaclav Havel, one of the writers whose work had been published through Sixty-Eight, awarded Škvorecký and his wife the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor the Czech Republic confers on foreigners who have made a contribution to Czech culture, during the couple’s first return visit to Prague in 1989. Unlike George Steiner, the founders of Sixty-Eight Press would only return to Europe as distinguished guests. A documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company that records their bittersweet visit to the Czech Republic in 1989 offers a subtle and moving portrait of an exiled writer’s return to his homeland after a hiatus of twenty years.

Is truth, as the eighteenth-century rabbi Baal Shem Tov said, always in exile? In her interview with Josef Škvorecký for the Central European Review, Julie Hansen asked the author if living in exile had affected him as a writer. Škvorecký replied, “Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn’t noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech [sic]. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.” Škvorecký claims to be satisfied with the work of translators who have brought his novels to other languages, emphasizing that having translated over ten English language novels into Czech, he is fully aware of the challenge professional translators face.

I fully agree with his assertion that living abroad gives writers and translators a greater appreciation for their native language or languages. While I revel in previously unimagined elements of expression that Spanish offers me, such as the imperfect and subjunctive tenses and two forms of the verb to be, rummaging through the endless stocks of synonyms and compound words available in English is a truly sybaritic delight. As George Steiner noted in his book Real Presences, “Each language speaks the world in its own ways. Each edifies worlds and counter-worlds in its own mode. The polyglot is a freer man.”

Bob Dylan once defined a hero as someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his or her freedom. According to this definition, one can easily say that George Steiner, Josef Škvorecký, and Zdena Salivarova have all been cultural heroes in an excessively dogmatic world. It takes guts for a holocaust-obsessed Jewish writer who quotes Baal Shem Tov to openly criticize the state of Israel when it has failed to fulfill its initial postulations as a society, and it is an act of selfless commitment to others for two writers fortunate to have escaped the claustrophobic atmosphere of their homeland to have spent twenty years of personal freedom maintaining intellectual lifelines with colleagues left behind. All three émigrés and wanders are conscious that despite the onrush of globalization, refugees find themselves in an increasing vulnerable position. When asked during his interview with Juliette Cerf if globalization has facilitated the movement of wandering spirits, George Steiner replied, “We have never had so many geographic barriers. . . . The planet is increasingly closed off. . . . Think of the horrible fate of modern refugees. When I had the honour of making a speech to the German government, I finished up saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen, all the stars are now turning yellow.’”

His reflections on modern refugees bring to mind another project that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this year: the preparation of the catalog for Médicos del Mundo’s annual 2011 Luis Valtueña photographic awards. Each year, MdM Spain offers an exhibition and cash prizes to photographers who have distinguished themselves in the field of humanitarian photography. Alessandro Grassani won this year’s top prize for his documentation of climate change refugees in Mongolia. Runners-up Luca Catalano and Gabriel Pecot were recognized for their coverage of conditions in refugee camps in Dadaab, Nigeria and Greece. Once more, my polyglot vocabulary expands; what I once knew as a tent and later as a yurt, I now know to be a gher. I now know the cycle of dry summers and bitterly cold winters that forced more than 39,000 traditional Mongolian herdsmen to give up their nomadic way of life in 2010 has a name that rolls off the tongue as bitter and hard as the trail of death and desperation it leaves in its wake: dzud.

Every language is an open window on the world, both its lights and its shadows. The mistletoe that decorates my front door in Spain on the longest night of the year and invites a romantic kiss is also a sprig of muérdago that must be thrown into the bonfire lit on St. John’s Day, the year’s longest day, to ensure the harvest. On this last day of the year, my husband brought home a subtitled documentary to watch before dinner—a big concession from a lifelong addict of dubbed versions of foreign films. “In-see-day hob,” he informs me triumphantly. In-see-day hob, indeed. May we begin to set things right in 2012, word by word, and deed by deed, and may the languages we read and speak, as George Steiner tells us in just some of the translations available through Presseurop, make us

feel at home everywhere
überall zuhause zu fühlen
sentir chez nous partout
sentir vontade em qualquer lugar

Yes, it was wrong; no, we can’t fix it: the Spanish judicial system and the poet Miguel Hernández

“It’s paradoxical that we are celebrating the centennial of a poet whose death sentence has never been annulled.”

Luis Pesquera, Miguel Hernández Commemoration, 2010

The Spanish “Law of Historical Memory” was enacted in 2007 to end the amnesia that had shrouded the fates of thousands of hapless Republican loyalists for more than three-quarters of a century. Although it was drafted during the administration of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was executed by pro-Franco troops, the legislation has fallen short of legally exonerating the names of the many Spaniards who defended a democratically elected government in the face of a military coup in the 1930s. The present Spanish government has had limited legal resources with which to amend the harm done to Republican loyalists. As Diego López Garrido, the Socialist Party’s spokesman, explained during the drafting of the legislation, the Spanish parliament could not annul the sentences imposed by the military and civil courts during the Falangist regime as such an action would constitute an invasion of “the territory of judges”; the best it could do was to declare the trials undertaken during that period illegitimate.

The main provisions of the Law of Historical Memory are the recognition of victims of political, religious, and ideological violence perpetrated by both factions involved in the Spanish Civil War; the prohibition of political events at the Valley of the Fallen, a massive monument to the followers of Franco who perished in the war built by forced labor; the removal of Francoist symbols from buildings and public spaces throughout Spain (except for those on property belonging to the Roman Catholic Church); the rejection of the legitimacy of laws enacted and trials conducted during the Francoist regime, the granting of Spanish nationality to surviving members of the International Brigades who defended the Second Republic, and State cooperation in the identification of what are estimated to be hundreds of unmarked mass burial grounds where executions took place during and after the civil war. As a result of this legislation, tours of the Pardo Palace in Madrid no longer include a viewing of Franco’s living quarters, Franco’s heirs have been forced to vacate a mansion in Galicia that the dictator and his family had used as a summer residence since 1940, various statues and other monuments linked to the Franco and the Falange Party have been removed from public view, and streets in towns and cities throughout Spain formerly named for individuals connected to the Franco regime have been changed. However, none of these actions can be taken as permanent. Recent electoral victories by the Partido Popular, a right-wing party founded by one of Franco’s ministers, Manuel Fraga, have given rise to a spirited cultural backlash that has entailed yet another renaming of public thoroughfares and public institutions. The new mayor of Elche, Mercedes Alonso, inaugurated her administration by  changing the name of a public garden located on the city’s Avenida de la Libertad from the Jardin de Dolores Ibárurri (La Passionaria) to the Jardín de la República Argentina, declaring that Ibárurri “had no link to the city,” and flatly stating “It’s destroyed, it doesn’t exist, it’s a part of the past.”

Unlike Germany and Italy, whose brutal but short-lived totalitarian regimes were defeated, dismantled, and judged by external powers, Spain has had the onerous burden of reconstructing civil society on its own after almost forty years of rule by a single political party that suppressed all dissent. Although democratic political processes were established and a new constitution was written following the death of Franco, these were forged during an extended period of transition in circumstances that permitted many of the social, political, economic, and religious structures of Francoism to remain largely intact. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Franco was never defeated or judged for his actions, nor were any of those responsible for the actions of his regime brought to account. The constitution and institutions of the new “Kingdom” of Spain were negotiated under tensions created by separatist movements and fears of another military coup d’état. Those who had enjoyed almost unlimited power during the dictatorship were expected to relinquish a part of their prior privileges and the dictatorship’s victims were expected to relinquish their individual claims against a government that now aspired to full recognition within the international community. History would be brushed under the rug for the sake of a better future. What has resulted from this “pact of silence” has been an uneasy truce between those who seek to keep a turbid past hidden beneath the rock of time and those who wish to expose it to the light of day.

The drafting of the Law of Historic Memory coincided with plans for nationwide commemorations of the centennial of the birth of Miguel Hernández. His heirs considered the circumstances propitious for requesting the annulment of the charges brought against the poet in the wake of the Civil War. At first, their case showed promise. Armed with a “Declaration de Reparación y Reconocimiento Personal” authorized under the recently enacted Law of Historic Memory that had been presented to them by Vice President María Fernández de la Vega in a public ceremony held at the University of Alicante, Hernández’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter sought the annulment of the death sentence dictated to him by the military “Tribunal de Prensa” in Madrid in 1940 and later commuted to a thirty-year prison sentence.

The charges brought against Hernández in 1940 were “adherence to the rebellion” and “carrying out an intensive literary activity,” both ironic considering that the military tribunal judging him represented an insurrectionary faction that had brought down a democratically elected government by armed force and intensive literary activity is what one would expect a poet to engage in. The peculiar logic that underpinned political persecutions during Franco’s dictatorship was the concept of “inverted rebellion.” In a concise but informative summary of the early Francoist judicial system, Miguel Gutiérrez Carbonell stressed that Spanish military tribunals in the 1940s showed no impartiality, the laws that instructed them were a travesty, and as the Law of Historic Memory has since conceded, the sentences dictated by such a system were “very unjust.” He noted, “reviewing the sentences related to this type of charge handed out during the period one can identify a general set of criteria: a charge of supporting rebellion was sustained on the basis of a person’s ideological sympathy towards ‘red subversion’; merely espousing a leftist or republican ideology or belonging to any political party that was not patently right-wing without engaging in any other incriminating activities was sufficient to establish a person’s adherence to a revolutionary cause.” He goes on to enumerate the violations of judicial process that were institutionalized in Franco’s summary judicial proceedings: “the defense lawyer was always a member of the military and was not required to hold a law degree. There was no provision for the accused to be represented by his or her attorney of choice.” The lawyer assigned to the defendant had no more than three hours to prepare a defense: “Three hours to find and present relevant evidence, study the case, and present court documents, when what was at stake for the accused was the death penalty or a thirty-year prison sentence.” The rulings of these military tribunals could not be appealed.

Spanish courts have refused numerous petitions to annul summary judgments passed during the Franco era on the grounds that they conformed to the laws in vigor at the time they were issued. Nonetheless, the heirs of Miguel Hernández hoped to prove that the poet had been denied a fair trial even from the point of view of the abysmal judicial system that had condemned him. A folio of documents that authorities in Alicante failed to transfer to Madrid for presentation at Hernandez’s trial had recently come to light during the digitization of historical archive material. It contained a letter from Juan Bellod, a military official in the Francoist regime, asserting the poet’s innocence. In an act of generosity that might have had consequences for his own future, Bellod wrote:

I have known Miguel Hernandez since he was a boy . . . He is a person with an impeccable past, generous sentiments and deep religious and humanist training, but whose excessive sensitivity and poetic temperament have led him to act in accordance with the passion of the moment rather than calm, firm will. I fully guarantee his behavior and his patriotic and religious fervor. I do not believe that he is, at heart, an enemy of our Glorious Movement.

The family of Miguel Hernández pinned their hopes on the presentation of this new evidence, but last June, in a closed session, the Spanish Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Other individuals who hoped to clear the name of a family member through new legal channels created by the Law of Historic Memory have likewise been disappointed, and there have been calls to amend the law to allow for the annulment of unjust sentences meted out to victims of the dictatorship. However, given the current political climate, any possibility of changing the law in favor of the victims of the Franco regime now seems remote. As he was dying in his prison cell, Miguel Hernández stubbornly refused to sign a confession that might have led to the commutation of the remainder of his thirty-year prison sentence and perhaps even the right to leave Spain. To the end, he maintained that he had not committed any crime against his country and he steadfastly refused to bow to the new regime. For decades after his death, his family paid the price for Hernández’s decision to defy the will of the dictatorship. For them, a government declaration that they have suffered unjustly is not enough; they maintain that until a judge declares him officially innocent of the crimes attributed to him in Madrid in 1940, the sentence stands as a blot on the reputation of both the poet and Spanish society.

For those interested in knowing more about the experience of Spanish citizens subjected to Francoist reprisals following the fall of the Second Republic, the University of California maintains an English-language website documenting its Spanish Civil War Memory Project, which contains subtitled interviews with survivors of the period.


Visualizing What Happened Then (and is Still Happening Now): The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Social Responsibility

Translating and editing texts related to the social sciences is interesting and rewarding work. I admire how experts in all fields of the social sciences fuse historical references, statistics, human psychology, law, medicine, and other disciplines to forge new insights into the human experience, tracing who we have been and indicating how we might evolve in the future, individually as human beings and collectively as citizens of a global village. Artists also work with social issues, drawing from some of the same sources as social scientists. This week in New York the centennial of an event that marked a “before and after” in both the city’s collective memory and the history of organized labor has been the occasion of scholarly reflection and artistic expression.

Shirtwaist: a woman’s tailored garment (as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts.              Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Exactly one hundred years ago today, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building, a ten-story mixed-use structure situated on Greene Street a little east of Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The Asch Building reflected a high standard of fireproof construction for the early twentieth century. The fire, which spread rapidly and charred the interior of the top three floors in less than thirty minutes, did no structural harm. It was later refurbished and sold to a  businessman who ceded it to New York University in 1929. In contrary to the great care taken in constructing the fire resistant shell of the building, practically no effort had been made to provide or maintain fire safety systems or escape routes for the human beings who worked within its walls. The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory were a cramped, poorly ventilated warren of cutting, sewing, and pressing machines, overhead racks of finished shirtwaists, and numerous bales of cotton cloth where hundreds of workers―the majority of them immigrant girls below the age of twenty-three―worked a nine-hour shift Monday through Friday and seven additional hours on Saturday.

Around 4:40 on Saturday, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Factory workers were wrapping up their shift. As they waited for the signal to punch the clock, someone shouted “Fire!” Half an hour later, Greene Street was strewn with the bodies of dozens of desperate workers who had flung themselves from the factory windows. The charred remains of more victims were discovered inside: many huddled against a door that had been locked to prevent the workers from stealing factory goods and others near the shaft of an elevator that was out of service the day the fire broke out. Survivors and onlookers later told tales of factory fire hoses that had not functioned and shoddy and inadequate iron fire escapes which had collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers.  The fire gutted the three floors of the factory before the firemen could arrive. In any case, their ladders only reached the sixth floor of the building. At 5:15 the fire was completely extinguished. Shortly after 11:00 p.m. the last body was carried off to the morgue. One hundred-sixteen women and thirty men had perished in the fire.

The event laid bare the darker side of early twentieth century industrialization and marked a turning point in the struggle for American safety and labor legislation. The ILGWU Local 25 had called a strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909 to protest unbearable working conditions, twelve hour shifts broken only by a half-hour lunch period, dangerous machinery, poor ventilation, and a lack of overtime compensation, a protest that later spread to factories throughout the city. The settlement reached in February 1910 included a small raise in pay and  a shorter workday, but factory owners made no concessions concerning working conditions and safety. In the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster, owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted on six counts of manslaughter for the deaths of two of the 146 workers who perished in the fire, but later acquitted. Ironically, in August, 1913, they were fined $25 for locking the fire exit doors in their new factory.    The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire became a rallying cry for unions and labor reformers intent on establishing safe working conditions throughout the textile industry. David Von Drehle titled his book on the event Triangle the Fire That Changed America. Stronger labor regulations were passed throughout the United States and Europe in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire; but while legislation and workers’ rights improved in some places, in general, the public’s addiction to affordable fashion and the industry’s policy of cutting costs to feed that demand remained the same. A century after “the fire that changed America”, the majority of the factories that produce what we wear are located in places where governments turn a blind eye to the plight to textile workers who toil long hours in appalling conditions. The many commemorations planned for the centennial of the New York tragedy should serve as a reminder that although the battle for decent wages and working conditions in the textile sector isn’t being fought before our eyes, it is still being waged in other places around the world. Guaranteed safety in the workplace and an end to child labor are unmet social development goals that will require a radical change of mentality, starting with the consumer.

Apart from scholarly books, a number of artists have been inspired to create works that memorialize the Triangle Shirtwaist workers and raise the issue of workers’ rights. I have always been fascinated by the way writers, playwrights, and artists draw upon historical archive material to create works that address social issues. A fine example is Chris Llewellyn’s Fragments from the Fire, a book of poems based on historical documents of the period. Llewellyn’s free verse incorporates quotes from newspaper reports, eye witnesses, and court documents. She imagines what a young immigrant garment worker named Marie wrote to her uncle in Europe: “They say with everyone coming here, Europe will soon be empty. Next payday I am sending money. Give some to Auntie but save the large part for yourself” and the reaction of Yale, the fire captain’s horse:

My name is Yale. At first:

Hail of cinders.

Glass. Fire bells.

Falling bales and

Timbers. Blood-smell…

Today the NYC Fire Department will park one of its fire engines in front of the Asch Building and raise its ladder to the sixth floor―two or three floors short of the window sills where terrified factory girls cried out for rescue. “It’s a heartbreaker,” says Ruth Sergel, coordinator of the group Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. “It makes you visualize what happened.”

To mark the centennial of the fire and bring attention to the many examples of unsafe working conditions that still exist all over the world, New York composer Elizabeth Swados has created “From the Fire,” a musical work that will be presented in the Judson Memorial Church in New York City several times this week. In an interview with Joy Resmovits for The Daily Forward she stated, “Moments like these merit reflection. . . especially in light of the recurrence of similar tragedies such as last December’s factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed at least 29 garment workers.”

The organizations SweatFree Communities and the International Labor Rights Forum are also hoping to use the commemoration as an opportunity to raise consciousness concerning the rampant use of child labor and the dangerous working conditions that exist today in sweatshops around the world. They have invited Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter, former garment workers who have served jail time in Bangladesh for trying to raise labor and safety standards there, to speak at various events scheduled throughout the city. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, the garment manufacturing sector is responsible for eighty percent of the GDP of Bangladesh. Workers earn $43 a month―about half of what they need to maintain their families. “They survive,” Trina Tocco, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum has observed, “by making cheap clothing for us. We shifted where products are made, but not how they are produced.”

While art and theater can raise the public’s consciousness of the human rights violations that lurk behind the glamour of fashion trends, good investigative reporting also can bring us closer to understanding our implication in a cycle of production that must be reformed if we are to make worldwide progress in the critical areas of human rights, health, education, and sustainable development. British Channel 4 recently produced a series of investigative reports under the title “Fashion’s Dirty Secret” which exposes inhuman labor conditions suffered by employees working for overseas subcontractors to some of Britain’s top fashion labels.

The Independent also ran an interesting article lately about how the overwhelming success of Sienna Miller’s “boho chic” look led overextended Indian suppliers to relax their oversight of subcontractors. The newspaper reported that “Children who had been sold into bonded labour — virtual slavery — by their families in other parts of India were sent to work in Delhi to meet a surge in demand for traditional Indian zari embroidery and beading for the boho chic look.” Reporters from the Independent tracked down some of these children working in the Delhi sweatshops. The youngsters told them that they worked from 9am to 9pm, with an hour off for lunch six days a week. A little boy who didn’t even know his own age told the reporters how much he missed his village. I miss my friends,” he said. “I went to school and I miss it.” Kailash Sathyarthi of the Global March Against Child Labour stresses that these children are the real “fashion victims” of today’s style-obsessed society.

Whenever I walk down Manhattan’s Greene Street, I stop to look up at the top floors of New York University’s Brown Building of Science, once known as the Asch Building. Where a century ago young immigrant girls hunched over sewing machines six days a week, scholars now study evolutionary biology. Many of the young Triangle Shirtwaist garment workers were the prime breadwinners of their families. Statistics show the same phenomenon occurs in India today; the ILO estimates that in some cases the pitiful wages of children working in Indian sweatshops represent as much as 37% of their families’ total income.  India is not the only country were these abuses are taking place.

Can anything be done to break this cycle? Yes, it can. Perhaps the best way to commemorate the tragedies of the past is to start  building a brighter future. If you want to know what is being done to raise the bar on children’s rights around the world, have a look at The Child Labor Public Education Project website which states:

Increasing children’s access to public education is a fundamental strategy for ending child labor.

If subjects like that could hit the top ten trend list on Twitter, and people gave some thought as to how it might be accomplished, we could make some real  progress toward human and social development and give fashion a brand new look.

A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep: Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum program

As a brief postscript to my post about my visit to Portbou and Collioure, I would like to offer readers  a few happier endings.

In September, Henry Reese  prepared an upbeat report about Pittsburgh’s “City of Asylum” program for the PBS Newshour that features  videos describing how several writers have found a safe haven and a fresh start in this city.

In 2009, The Institute of East Asian Studies of the University of California, Berkley published a bilingual edition of poems  by the City of Asylum’s first guest artist  Huang Xiang with English translations by Michelle Yeh under the title A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep, available through the Institute’s website. A poet, painter and performer active in reform movements in China, Huang Xiang served several sentences in Chinese labor camps before he and his wife Zhang Ling were able to flee into exile in 1997. His work is banned in his homeland.

Here is a sample of his work that I found in the International Cities of Refuge website:

A heavy
in hand
is like
a big trailing
across the spacious paper of life
footprints of thick ink
in swift strokes
some deep, some light along the way
one after the other
lightning rods
of semen and blood

ICORN is a network of cities worldwide that offer two-year residencies to exiled writers who have suffered persecution and censorship in their homelands. The administrative center for communications between host cities is in Stavanger, Norway.