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Translating the Commons: Progress Report

freefairandalive | Mercè M. Tarrés I CC BY-SA 4.0

The library at the Goethe-Institut Athen has seized the initiative and instigated a translation of the book Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier. This is a collective endeavour based on the practice of the commons. An online seminar with Silke Helfrich, one of the book’s two authors, took place in early October. This was followed by a two-day workshop with the Greek translators looking at the topic of collective translation.

By Alexandros Schismenos

During the seminar, Silke introduced us to the world of the commons. She made it clear that the practice of commoning is not just about managing shared resources and shared production but also provides a guide to reconceptualising reciprocity, equal participation, and communication, and building social relationships on the basis of trust.

Silke presented numerous initiatives based on commons principles. These are not simply projects designed to improve everyday life: they also contain a visionary redefinition of the future with a new conceptual take on social organisation, economics, infrastructures, politics, and even state power. The idea of the commons refers to a social form that allows people to be free without oppressing others, to administer justice beyond bureaucratic control, to promote unity without coercion, and to lay claim to sovereignty without nationalism.

Her analysis homed in on concepts and ways of acting that are based on heterarchy and individual creativity and on setting up social networks as a communal endeavour. In many respects, the commons seeks to rearticulate social life and is committed to ensuring equal status in governance and the cooperative management of complex projects. According to the authors, this is based on an “ontological” turn – the transformation, that is, of our perception of the world. The commons thus appear as the only sustainable alternative to the capitalist system of exploitation, which is underpinned by the pursuit of profit, fear, and isolation.

In her remarks, Silke presented different models of commoning, as manifested in groups and networks. She stressed how important it is, when translating the terms into Greek, to not simply render them word for word but to express them in such a way that they partake of the idiosyncrasies of the national experience.

In the workshop that followed with the translators of her book, she explained some of the model names and terms that she and David Bollier had coined. This gave us a way in to the spirit of a truly creative translation – what might be termed a “transladaptation” – which takes into account the peculiarities of not only the language but the social environment too: this makes the terminology comprehensible and provides a more in-depth sense of the modes of action and ideas described.

During the workshop, we practised various forms of collaborative translation and communication among ourselves – people took over chapters spontaneously, and horizontal communication structures were established between individuals and groups of translators. We discussed possible renderings of different terms and concepts that would preserve their semantic richness and web of connotation and analysed prior translations into Spanish and German. Silke’s comments were an invaluable help, giving us a better way into some of the key concepts and clarifying our understanding of them. As she was keen to point out, each translation of the book is a creative transmission that is directly dependent upon the distinctive character of the place and the forms of commons that have been developed. The book and the translation are themselves part of a large open process of commoning.

In keeping with this, Silke presented the central ideas of the book as a work in progress that takes into account social transformations and the lived experience that they engender. She also encouraged us to view our attempts at translation as a collaborative endeavour rooted in the practice of the commons and to register our experiences in the overall theoretical context – that of overcoming prevailing norms and stereotypes.

The particular conditions governing communication in this project were also discussed: this is by and large limited to internet conferencing owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. We talked about these constraints and looked for imaginative, creative ideas for overcoming them using available modes of digital commons (open source platforms; working with any documents that can be accessed; regular communication and mutual help wherever difficulties arise). A shared sense of trust, collective ingenuity, and an authentic interest in the commons on the part of the translators help us to cope with these situations, opening up new forms of communication that operate beyond any local limitations.

As with every commons project, this process of collaboratively producing an intellectual work– the creative rendering of a book, in other words – gives rise to new ideas of perception and makes it possible to break down stereotypes and clichés. It inspires us to find creative, free, and equitable forms of working together as we strive for a shared world that is free, fair, and vividly alive.