The Tower of Babels – Interpreting at the Americas Social Forum in Quito

By Martin Hoffman

As a professional interpreter, you may find yourself working in the finely outfitted booth of a prestigious conference center or in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of an emergency room. Somewhere in between lies the experience of Babels, the global network of volunteer translators and interpreters for the World Social Forum. In July of this year, it was in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, nestled high in the Andes, that these volunteers congregated to offer their services.

This past summer, an intriguing message was forwarded to the NCTA’s e-mail list. Its header was “Volunteer interpreters needed in Ecuador.” It went on to explain that Babels had been asked to cover the needs in simultaneous interpretation at the ASF (Americas Social Forum) for Spanish, Quechua, Portuguese, English, and French—all official languages of the pan-American Forum. I followed the instructions for signing up as a French-English interpreter. Six weeks later, I was on a plane bound for Quito!

My travel companions were Leda Beck, a Bay Area-based Babels coordinator who is originally from Brazil, and Mateo Rutherford, a freelance Spanish interpreter who lives in Berkeley. They were both veterans of previous WSF events, and during the long plane ride they filled me in on what to expect.

The only events scheduled for our first two days in Quito were an interpreter orientation and the opening ceremonies. We therefore had plenty of opportunities to visit Ecuador’s capital city, which was founded in a high narrow valley on the slopes of Pichincha volcano in the 16th century, and which is today a UNESCO world-heritage site.

There were about 60 interpreters at the orientation, which was held mostly in Spanish, with occasional asides in Portuguese, French, and English. Among the many interesting things I learned was the fact that half the interpreters at this Forum were non-professionals (mostly students). The plan was to pair professionals with non-professionals in the interpreting booths. The philosophy of Babels, an avowedly “non-hierarchical” organization, is that everyone should have the opportunity to participate, share, and learn.

The color of celebration

The next morning, Mateo and I went to the Plaza de San Francisco in the city’s historic quarter for the opening ceremonies. Combining elements of both a carnival and a protest, the event might be best described as “defiantly festive.” There were at least a thousand people in attendance, and two stages. On the main stage participants gave speeches, alternating with musical performances, including Quechuan drummers, a local hard rock band featuring Andean pan-pipe players, and an African-American civil-rights activist who sang “¡El pueblo UNIDO jamás sera VENCIDO!” (“The people UNITED will never be DIVIDED!”) to a gospel melody, with an endearingly thick American accent. On the other stage, a small group of Indian women in traditional garb were chanting and burning sage.

The crowd itself was quite diverse: a mix of locals and foreigners, ASF activists, hippies, real-life communists bearing red flags and distributing Marxists pamphlets, intellectuals with wire-rimmed glasses debating globalization, little boys looking at my scuffed shoes with avid disapproval and asking me “Shoeshine?,” tattooed punk rockers, banner-waving union members, voluble Brazilians wearing giant multicolored Afro wigs, and some folks wrapped in rainbow flags who were either gay-rights activists or indigenous-rights activists (in the Andes, both groups have laid claim to the same flag).

A new perspective

The next morning I went to the Babels office to get my interpreting schedule. I was bemused to discover that I had been assigned only to Spanish-English booths for the duration of the Forum. I reminded the coordinator (an otherwise charming volunteer from Argentina) that I only interpret between French and English, and have never interpreted Spanish (I only translate it) and she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ve already assigned all the events that have French presenters, but since you understand Spanish, I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Not being quite as confident as she was, I nonetheless went off to my first assignment. The panel topic was “Human Rights: Pathways and New Perspectives,” with speakers from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Suriname. I was as nervous as I was the first time I had interpreted French, some eight years earlier. But it could have been worse. For example, some poor interpreter got stuck with “The Democratization of New Technology: Laser Odontology as a Tool for Improving People’s Quality of Life.” I figured that in a worst-case scenario, if I didn’t understand what the speaker was saying, I could just tune my FM radio to catch interpreting from one of my French colleagues and work with that. Or, maybe I’d get lucky and one of the local radio stations would up the wattage and drown us all out with the latest Ricky Martin single.

Somehow I managed to stay afloat in the Spanish-to-English booth. That is, when there was a booth. At the first event where I interpreted, there was no equipment, so my interpreting partner and I had to do whisper interpreting, sitting at the back of the hall with a crowd of English speakers sitting around us, leaning in to hear. Whisper interpreting leaves much to be desired, because without a direct feed into headphones, when you are speaking you can hardly hear what the presenter is saying. It didn’t help that a woman with a chatty, squirming little boy decided to sit right next to me!

Of war stories and peace

In spite of these distractions, when I was done, one of the people for whom I was interpreting told me I did an excellent job, which felt good, even if that particular morning it wasn’t true! But during the following days I also got positive feedback from my colleagues, most of whom were very talented and accomplished interpreters and who were sympathetic to the fact that I was a novice in the Spanish booth. It turns out that they had “war stories” of their own!

A number of other social, political and economic themes were discussed during the conference (see The other seminars and panels at which I interpreted were entitled “Demilitarization and Peace Proposals,” “The FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and FTAs (Free Trade Agreements): The Crucial Moment for the Peoples of the Americas,” “Integration Alternatives for the Peoples of the Americas,” and “Free Trade: Resistance and Proposals.” I also had the honor of being among those chosen to interpret at the closing ceremonies, which featured some inspiring speeches and dazzling performances by local musicians and dance troupes.

Despite the organizational problems that I’ve mentioned, I was nonetheless impressed by the hard work of the Babels team (or “Babelit@s” as we call ourselves), who are all volunteers and are primarily involved with the World Social Forum through a desire to further social justice in the world. There was a real sense of esprit de corps among the interpreters, all of whom were warm, friendly, good-natured people.

A growing experience

Volunteering for Babels is an excellent way for beginning interpreters to gain experience in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, where skills certainly do count, but so does the fact that you’re simply trying your best. It is also a wonderful way for seasoned interpreters to participate in a worthy cause, while providing guidance to interpreters-in-training. I was inspired by the examples of the people around me, and by my own unexpected ability to perform adequately as a Spanish-to-English interpreter. Although I have been working towards being able to interpret Spanish for a number of years, had I not been given this opportunity, I think I would have waited another year or two before even attempting it. Granted, I still have a tremendous amount of progress to make, but for the first time I feel confident enough to volunteer my services locally, doing community interpreting between Spanish and English.

In the end, my Quito experience was a valuable one, and I made some real friends while I was there. I’m looking forward to meeting up with them in January 2005 for the next WSF, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Volunteer interpreters (and translators as well) are still being recruited for this event, as well as for the Mediterranean Social Forum, to be held next summer in Barcelona (see below).

Building Bridges

Babels is the non-profit global network that provides volunteer translation and interpreting services for the World Social Forum. The WSF is an open meeting place where groups and movements engaged in building a civil, global society centered on the human person, come together to pursue their thinking, debate ideas democratically, formulate proposals, share experiences freely, and network for effective action. For more information about the WSF, visit www. If you think you might be interested in volunteering to be a Babels translator, interpreter, or coordinator, visit the Babels website at, where you can find more information on the group, and on registering for upcoming events.