Archive for June, 2011

Stolen in Translation

New Statesman – Just before you accept Johann Hari’s apology ….

It now appears that Mr Hari has made quite a habit of pinching quotes given to other interviewers, and claiming that they were given to him. Just look at this:

“It is possible I have something of this . . . tragic sense of life,” he [Chavez] acknowledged. He recalled that on the eve of the 1992 rebellion he had said goodbye to his wife and three children, and led his soldiers out of their barracks. He was the last to leave. After locking the big front gate, he threw away the key. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” Chávez said. “So it is possible that one has been a bit . . . imbued with that . . . ever since, no?

Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, The Revolutionary, 10 September 2001

The spectre haunting Latin America – the spectre of Hugo Chavez – furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. “I will never forget – in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them.” He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” he says, looking away. “So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit… imbued with that sense ever since, no?

Johann Hari, The Indepedent, Hugo Chavez – An ‘Exclusive’ Interview, 14 May 2006

Oliver made an important point about Hari’s swiping of quotes relating to Antonio Negri yesterday, that given the fact the quotes were lifted from a translation, Hari had plagiarised not one, but two people. And the same is true here. God knows I’ve been translating plenty of stuff of late, and a lot of the time it’s a damn pain in the ass, trying to preserve as far as possible the original meaning, making sure you neither lose the flow and coherence of the original, nor do you freight the translated version with a load of other stuff that just obscures what the original thrust was.

You can obsess over some of these points endlessly, since there’s never a perfect option to be chosen, and sometimes it can come out rather clunky, and we can see in Anderson’s translation above -albeit without the original words to which we can refer- some of these tensions coming to the fore. For example, the ‘no?’ at the end is not a locution used all that commonly in English and generally when it is used it is recognisable as the sort of thing a non-native speaker might say. But the point is to convey as fully as possible the sense of what the person is saying in their own language, and not to emphasise the foreignness of that person. So the problem with the ‘no?’ here is that it imbues -to use an excellent word- Chávez with a degree of foreignness in his expression, by bringing to the fore an unusual locution that is not unusual at all in Spanish.

Now I am not saying at all that Anderson is committing word crimes for doing this: for one, it might not have even occurred to him that this is what he was doing, second, it most likely preserves the flow of the original, and the event of Chávez confiding something to him, in a way that ‘know what I mean?’ would definitely not. So perhaps he has made the most sensible decision given the overall task he has undertaken.

The point being that this decision, as part of the whole process of bringing these words into existence, is a considerable act of labour – from arranging to conduct the interview, second, to conducting the interview in such a way that Chávez makes the disclosures that he does (and doing so in the original language), through translating the words not only in such a way that they give an accurate account of what Chávez says, but so that they also convey the overall feel of the encounter. But Hari copies and pastes the quote into his own interview and passes it off as though he himself had been responsible for Chávez saying what he did. That is a scandalous form of lying and probably worse than if he had simply made up his own stuff.

Use Your Disillusion

To be honest, I’m not too sure why I translated this. It’s a worthy enough document, but hardly says anything new. It is a manifesto signed up to by various prominent Spanish public figures on the left, including Baltasar Garzón, Pedro Almodóvar and Almudena Grandes. It is fairly clear that there is a strong whiff of disillusion with the PSOE pervading the document, and also clear is the rousing effect that the 15-M movement has had on proceedings. As usual, it illustrates important differences between Ireland and Spain, in terms of political atmosphere, that a similar document emanating from prominent Irish artists, writers and lawyers is nigh inconceivable, not only with regard to the conscious identification with left-wing politics, but in terms of the core ideas expressed.

But however apt its description of events, it seems imbued with a sense of a missed bus. That is, this talk about rebuilding the left and what the left should do and so on. ‘The left’, as a name for a group of forces characterised by their relation to a notional parliamentary centre, seems to have been hollowed considerably in light of the mass demonstrations in Spain and Greece against parliaments, and the violent suppression of popular demonstrations by tooled-up police.

What does it mean to speak about a ‘left’ from the point of view of someone who now opposes the very form of representative parliamentary democracy practised in these states, once the latter began to reveal itself, in the eyes of growing numbers of the Spanish and Greek public, as just one more instrument of wealth and power?

And this makes me wonder about the United Left Alliance here in Ireland. On the one hand I can see the point in using the Dáil as a platform for public advocacy of opposition and resistance. On the other, is there not a certain legitimation of parliamentary democracy going on? In that Fine Gael and Labour can point to the assembled opposition and say, “see? Isn’t it wonderful how we have a democracy in which all manner of dissenting viewpoints can be expressed? And isn’t it wonderful, furthermore, how we were elected to administer the IMF/ECB programme by the very same token?”

Now, I’ll admit the word ‘left’ is a fairly minor consideration in this situation, and I can also see the sense in naming a party as ‘left’ and organising along these lines, in so far as there is a division to be insisted upon, at every turn, between politics of neo-liberal governance and politics of resistance. Nonetheless I can’t help but wonder if coming months will see public confidence in Irish parliamentary democracy crumble beyond repair, not to give way to some sort of revolutionary turn, but rather taking with it any sort of interest in the broad type of political ideas the ULA claims to stand for. So I am very sceptical about these discussions about what ‘the left’ ought to be doing, however much I might agree with certain things, so long as they do not take into account the crisis of legitimacy of representative parliamentary democracy, and what this means in terms of how people are to participate in democratic processes.


The discrediting of politics and the regular complaints about the corruption of democratic life cannot be met with indifference by the consciences of progressives. There are many people who, from different ideological perspectives, have felt defenceless in the midst of this economic, social and institutional crisis. The left has a more serious problem than the forward march of reactionary forces in the latest municipal elections. It is a question of its lack of horizon. Whilst the financial markets impose the dismantling of the welfare state in search of untrammelled profits, a socialist government has been incapable of imagining any other prescription than to accept anti-social pressuring and to degrade public rights and working conditions.

It is evident that the electoral results have taken a heavy toll on the PSOE. But the alternatives to its left have not picked up on voters affronted by neoliberal policies and the shortcomings of an imperfect democracy. And yet, this is not the time to give up on one’s dreams, because the street and social networks have suddenly started showing signs of rebellion by speaking out about politics. This civic energy, renewed and full of nuance, has four decisive concerns: democratic regeneration, decent working conditions, defence of public services and the development of a sustainable economy, committed to respect the environment and to operate in the service of all. These are the great worries of the 21st century in the shadow of a system that is ever more avaricious, that treats international solidarity and the dignity of the nature of human beings with arrogant and unimpeded contempt.

Democratic corruption has proven the best ally of speculation, separating political trajectories from civic sovereignty and decomposing institutional powers from the inside. Public life must be restored with pride in its honesty, legitimacy and transparency. And as such it is essential to seek new forms of participative democracy and bring to this with a common dream the ideals of solidarity of a social and democratic left.

The financial powers rely on our isolation and our fear. Their threats try to paralyse us, to privatise our consciences and submit us to the law of selfishness and every man for himself. But the energy of the social fabric can consolidate a coming together in which different sensibilities on the left flow together and find the necessary consensus for the creation of a common dream. We must transform the aged bi-partite electoral map. The level of civic protagonism reached in certain processes such as the referendum on Spain’s membership of NATO, the opposition to the war in Iraq, or the 15-M movement, show us the way.

The support and effort of all is needed, because nothing is written down and everything is possible. The world is changed by those who, from their principles and civic commitment, stand up to injustice, break with the temptation to accommodate and get up and fight giving direction to the dream. The memory of human emancipation demands an honest look at values and the future. We are convinced about the need to reconstruct the present of the left. And you?

Sins of The Father

Great interview. Looking forward to the book!

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide

I was in Chicago on presidential election night in 2008. I find it hard to imagine that I will ever witness an explosion of pride and elation on such a scale ever again, with throngs of jubilant supporters stretching along every avenue as far as the eye could see, celebrating the end of the Bush era and the election of a black president. I’d like to be able to say they were unforgettable scenes, but I had forgotten many of the scenes the following morning, for reasons those familiar with the effects of concentrated alcohol consumption will be familiar with.

The evening had started out normal enough. I had got stuck into a load of delectable heavy finger buffet, which among other things involved plunging fist-sized strawberries into a chocolate fountain that almost spilled over into the obscene. And then a few glasses of red wine, and discussion with a few of my (mostly Republican) fellow buffeteers about matters political. None of them was in the slightest bit pissed off about Obama becoming present. This was in the early hours of the ‘post-racial’ dawn, and a couple of them ventured that the election of a black man to the presidency emphasised the greatness and intrinsic genius of US democracy. Were the red wine not so potent, I might have subjected this claim to more critical attention.

I was thinking about this time during the Obama visit – about the people I saw out on the streets of Chicago that night, and then the ones who turned out on College Green to greet him.

Not too many of them in Chicago or Dublin would share the view of Cornel West (who campaigned for Obama) that he is ‘a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it’, which seems fair enough to me.

West, who has taken a lot of heat for his stance on Obama, has been particularly seething about how the figures Obama appointed to key positions were already well ensconced in power elites:

“I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor,” he says. “But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’ And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”


In the lead-up to Obama’s visit there were murmurings of discontent here and there about the detail in Morgan Kelly’s piece in the Irish Times that indicated his appointee to Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, had vetoed a ‘plan to haircut €30 billion of unguaranteed bonds by two-thirds on average‘. But it made no difference to the throngs who assembled in College Green to hear Obama speak, perhaps hopeful of a sign that the long nightmare could be cut short by the sort of progressive populist figure West thought he had seen.


But as this translated piece by Alejandro Nadal shows, they were standing to face the same ‘progressive populist’ whose direct appointment had plunged them -and their fellow citizens across Europe- even further into the nightmare.

 Irish lesson for a Greek Tragedy

It seems the financial markets already take for granted that Greece will default in the coming months. The first package of bailout and austerity that was imposed on Athens failed. Its main objectives, the reduction of the debt to GDP ratio and the stabilising of relations with financial markets, seem unreachable today. There is no clear horizon in sight.

Obviously restructuring would be the best course of action for Greece. It would have a lower cost for the people of that country, and would have the virtue of placing part of the burden for the crisis on the lenders who are responsible for this debacle. Athens could devote its efforts to restoring the health of its finances without sacrificing a generation (as happened in Latin America starting with the 80s crisis).

But, of course, it is being said that if Greece is forced into a default, the cascading effect will make the debacle after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 look like a picnic. According to this narrative, in the tsunami of contagion panic will not only hit bond sales of countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy. It will also hit the assets of supposedly healthier countries and even big US corporations.

All this is speculative. What we do know for the moment is that the first bailout package led to an austerity that made the recession worse and reduced tax receipts. That is why today the risk of Greek default is stronger than ever and there are two possible scenarios. The first is that of soft restructuring, with simple extensions to the repayment periods and some reductions in interest rates. This is the scenario Angela Merkel supports, because she wants to make it clear to her electorate that she is not going to spend fiscal resources in bailing out private banks. The other one is a hard restructuring, with cuts to the principal, as well as changes in repayment period and rates. As one might have expected, the financial sector, with the European Central Bank at its head, has closed ranks to avoid any sort of restructuring.

What is the deep reason for this opposition for everything that smells of restructuring of a debt that in any case seems unpayable? The experience of Ireland is instructive. Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at UCD, published an article on the failed attempt to restructure Irish debt. In November 2010 the ECB was insisting on its radical position of supporting creditors. The jettisoned Strauss-Kahn at the IMF surfaced as a supporter of restructuring and the Dublin government was grateful for the support of this unexpected ally. This restructuring meant cutting the total to be paid and changes to the repayment period and interest rates. But the arrangement was torpedoed by Tim Geithner. For what reason did the US Secretary of the Treasury oppose the restructuring of Irish debt?

For Geithner, an Irish restructuring could have provoked a contagion effect in Europe, affecting US banks that would have to pay 120 billion dollars in debt swaps (the dreaded credit default swaps). These financial derivatives were originally designed as a form of insurance in cases of debt default. But they took on their own life and became mechanisms for high-risk betting, sowing explosive mines in the financial world.

The degree of American exposure through these CDS is an estimate, since that segment of the financial market is too opaque. For its part, the ratings agency Fitch says that more than 44% of US banks’ resources in the money market is held up in European banks. No wonder Geithner is worried.

A couple of days ago Dublin tried to resurrect its demand to restructuring, at least a part of the debt incurred in the bank bailout. Once again Washington’s sabotage makes this exit unthinkable. Geithner’s position is simple: public resources are there to rescue banks, regardless of the cost for the citizens of a country. It does not matter that in the origin of the crisis the owners and managers of the banks had acted with excessive greed and negligence.

It is obvious that what is needed today is some sort of restructuring of Greek debt. The only way of lifting that country is through a new plan, with a long term perspective, which allows the restoration of growth and tax receipts. At any rate, the solution that is finally adopted in the case of Greece will be determined politicially. There is no reason to adopt a plan whose only logic is to punish the debtor. In these days of the anniversary of Bloomsday, if Joyce could see us he would surely write that the tyranny that the financial sector is imposing on us is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awake.


Sagrada Familiar

Vicenç Navarro analyses events in Barcelona over the past week, examining the anti-democratic measures introduced by Artur Mas’s government. A government rolling back on election promises, giving priority to the demands of Brussels, the fetish for sating the demands of financial markets, the compliant media, the cut-thirsty establishment, the contempt for democracy, the paltry welfare state, the conflating of minor scuffles with terrorism: now where have I heard that one before?

Who is anti-democratic?

The morning of the 15th of June, the members of the Parlament of Catalonia had been called to approve the budgets put forward by the new Government of Catalonia -which included the most radical cuts in social spending to be carried out during the democratic period. These cuts would weaken even further the already underdeveloped welfare state of Catalonia, which, along with the rest of Spain, has the lowest social spend per capita in the EU-15 (the group of EU countries with most similar economic development to ours). The president of the government, Artur Mas, had declared that these cuts “were due to the demands of Brussels”. However, they were not in the electoral programme of this party in the recent elections to the Parlament of Catalonia. What is more, during the electoral campaign, Mas promised on numerous occasions that his government, should it be elected, would not carry out such cuts, singling out health and education, in particular, as the public services of the welfare state that would be protected the most from any cutback. These promises were clearly ignored, and immediately after the government was formed, significant reductions in social spending were begun, above all, in health and education.

The economic and financial establishments (close to CiU and the PP) approved of these cuts, presented in top media outlets in Catalonia, including those of the Generalitat, such as TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio, as inevitable and necessary in order to “regain the confidence of the financial markets”, the phrase most widely used to justify the extraordinary reduction in the already poorly funded welfare state in Catalonia.

The deafening silence of the Catalan establishment faced with these cutbacks contrasts with the uproar on account of almost identical circumstances in the United Kingdom, where the government led by David Cameron was carrying out substantial cuts in social spending, despite the fact that these were not included in its electoral programme. Cameron, like Mas, had also promised, during the electoral campaign, that he would not make cuts. Well, in the United Kingdom, no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the highest authority in the Anglican Church, roundly denounced this behaviour and accused Cameron’s government of immorality and lacking democratic legitimacy when carrying out these measures, making clear that legitimacy and legality were two concepts with different ethical and political implications. He emphasised that the cuts, while legal, entered into conflict with the democratic order, since such public policies had no popular mandate for their implementation. Demonstrating the scarcely democratic culture of the Catalan establishment, no voice surfaced to point out and -even less so- denounce such anti-democratic behaviour from Mas and his government.

Needless to say that whilst the financial, economic, political and media establishments maintained their silence, only broken to support the cutbacks, large sectors of the population, beginning with the unions, mobilised against them. As a consequence, Catalonia today is living through a great social and labour agitation. The latest addition to these protests are those of the 15-M movement, one of the most positive developments that has taken place in the political life of Catalonia (and of Spain) which, as a consecuence of its radicalism, goes to the root of the causes of the cutbacks, which is to say, the existence of a very incomplete democracy, which is responsible for insufficient wellbeing. The strength of this movement is based in the fact that the causes of its outrage are shared by the great majority of the population which, moreover, finds a large amount of its specific proposals for change reasonable and necessary. Its criticisms of the enormous democratic shortcomings in existence in Catalonia (and in Spain) are widely shared by Catalan society.

Artur Mas tried to discredit these mobilisations contrasting them with the support his party CiU had obtained from what he called the “silent majority” in the last municipal elections carried out only a few weeks previous. In this declaration various facts were ignored. One is that CiU only received the support of 14.9% of the electorate (that is, of those who voted and those who able to vote did not do so). His great victory was based in an electoral law that is scarcely democratic, which translates such a small percentage of votes of the electorate into such a large change to representative institutions. What is more, among the voters, the voters for left parties (1,220,926, tri-partite) were greater in number than the right wing (1,141,597, CiU and PP). And even a minority (but a substantial one) of the right wing voters disagrees with the cutbacks that the Mas government is carrying out. Whatever way you look at it, the Mas executive did not have a mandate to carry out these policies.

It is therefore healthy that the 15-M should want to denounce these cuts that were going to be implemented by trying, symbolically, to surround the Parlament to denounce these measures. The slogans called for non violence. But it got out of control [not least on account of agents provocateurs – HG], and this is being used to discredit the movement (and this despite the fact that the 15-M movement condemned the violence and denounced the uncivil behaviour of a tiny minority). After that, Mas even tried to link the 15-M movement to terrorism. These clumsy attempts at criminalising them failed, and last Sunday, Barcelona saw one of the biggest ever demonstrations in its history.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday, Sunday Bloody Sunday

Bit of a novelty today with my translation: the author is myself. I don’t write much in Spanish because I find it both difficult and never have the need anyway, but I decided to respond to a post about Northern Ireland on Público which used Sunday Bloody Sunday as the eternal lament for cities of conflict such as Belfast, Jerusalem and Mostar. 

I’m from there and I would like to clarify a couple of things. In Northern Ireland the most common euphemism for the conflict is not “The Problems” but “The Troubles”. Another thing: in 1886 it is true that in the whole island it was a case of a “Catholic majority, poor and working class, and a rich Protestant minority”, but today this is not the situation in Northern Ireland: within the Northern Ireland borders there is a Protestant majority, and I am mostly in agreement with what David Barriado says here above: Northern Ireland is a vestige of the British Empire. Moreover, the fact that there is a Protestant majority -which is to say, loyal to the British State- is the result of its initial design, and as such its “religious-social ghettos’ are a near inevitable product of this design.

In Northern Ireland there is a practice that can also be perceived in Israel/Palestine, according to which each group within that society (whether Jews or Arabs in Israel/Palestine or Catholics/Protestants in Northern Ireland) is portrayed as decent and peace-loving, but tragically mired in the violence unleashed by a few people on both sides.

The most important effect of this practice is to hide the character and the role of the State in each situation and present “the violence” as if it were a sort of virus and not a product of the State. But it also produces songs such as Sunday Bloody Sunday.

An example: the UK government declared, before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, that it had no ‘selfish strategic’ interest in Northern Ireland. However, in recent years the British government has built, in Belfast, a new military intelligence headquarters – for the whole of the United Kingdom. Its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the demonisation of Muslims that has accompanied these wars has also raised social tensions in Northern Ireland, through the process of legitimating the extreme violence of the British State against its official enemies. It should be no surprise, then, that the most ‘loyal’ citizens in Northern Ireland should interpret this behaviour of the State as an excuse and a justification for taking out their frustrations (which are real and serious) on the sector of the population that identifies itself as Irish.

Real Adjectives Now

Hugo Martínez Abarca has an excellent post dealing with the matter of real democracy and its treatment by the present party of government, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Translation below.

The Adjectives of Democracy

(Tweet reads ‘Iglesias [Marcelino, erstwhile president of the Aragón regional government (but no longer – thanks ejh) and deputy leader]: democracy is democracy. Without adjectives. And we want to defend that. The most enduring democracy in our history.’)

The idiocy above belongs to the Twitter account of a party that defines itself (I suppose they haven’t bothered to correct the definition) as social democratic. It’s clear they’ve forgotten about the adjective social, now that it no longer applies. Other people define themselves as Christian democrats and no-one gives them lessons on the theory of the noun and the limits to its adjectives.

It is true that in both cases these are adjectives that seek a distinct position within the same model of democracy – liberal and representative. What those who deny the possible application of adjectives to democracy want is to deny that there are different models of democracy: this is democracy and whoever seeks a different model seeks something else that is not democratic. Moreover they have convinced us that all that is not democracy is dictatorship (this is the case for enemies: this is why they are all dictators) and therefore if we are not in a dictatorship it’s because this is a democracy (this is the case for friends: this is why they are all democracies, or on the way to becoming them).

Thus those who want a democracy with an adjective threaten democracy: this is set forth by the Twitter account of the PSOE with a little less clarity than when Esperanza Aguirre [President of Madrid regional government and PP grandee – HG] was claiming that 15M was a totalitarian movement (Aguirre too had said that democracy can have no adjective).

Of course there are adjectives for democracy. A direct democracy such as the Athenian one is not the same as a liberal representative democracy which is not the same as a participative democracy. These are distinct models, although one could speak of hybrids which are probably desirable.

But today this is not what is in question. She who asks for real democracy is not asking (at least in that request) for a particular model of democracy. She is not giving democracy an adjective. She is asking for democracy. Just as whoever asks for a real apple is not saying she wants a reinette or a golden delicious, but that she does not wish to be fooled with a plastic apple: she is asking for nothing more than an apple. Real democracy does not stand in opposition to another type of democracy, but to fake democracy, that is: the absence of democracy.

They ask us to refrain from adding adjectives. It would make no difference: we could call for democracy now in counterpoint to that plastic democracy in which our occasional vote is distorted and then handed over in wrapping paper to Botín (Emilio Botín, executive chairman of Grupo Santander) and his forty thieves.

Yesterday the Eurogroup (another body without democratic origin that imposes decisions on these supposedly sovereign governments) responded to those peoples who are rising up that “there is no alternative to the adjustments”. These are policies that they have decided and they explain to the people that there is no way that they can correct them. Thus: we agree with Marcelino Iglesias and Esperanza Aguirre, with the PP and the PSOE. Even though there can be problems when it comes to placing adjectives on democracy, on this occasion there is no need: it is a matter of demanding democracy, of demanding something that today we do not have. Nothing more.

I on Twitter

June 2011