Open-Wide Translation: Centering Intersectional Feminist, Accessible Translating Across Platforms

The following is an adaptation of the presentation “Open-Wide Translation: Centering Intersectional Feminist, Accessible Translating Across Platforms,” given at the Translation in the Margins Symposium, Free Word Centre, London, on October 3, 2015.

We are as human beings constantly translating; we have been our whole lives. As children, we are translating our worldview for those of adults, who often simply have no comprehension as to why we can’t have enough ice cream, why we are crying, what we need them to know, and we contort our own confusing feelings as human beings into words through language acquisition—slowly but surely, we learn how to place our translations of self in others’ lives to better our own sense of being known.

As we grow and realize that the world is a harsh and discriminatory place, we negotiate boundaries of community, locale, and personal psyche, translating our positions and affects as women and/or writers and/or translators and/or residents of a place, or whatever markers shape our world, both for people within those communities and those without.

As non-men, we women and nonbinary people have had to struggle to focus on our own selves’ messages, regardless of the spectre of male gaze or ear. As non-white women, we resist concordant false notions of talent, beauty, and intellectual superiority by others that centuries of history have imprinted on generations. As members of D/deaf and disabled communities, counting myself as part of the latter, we daily navigate the real, often life-threatening consequences of marginalisation as fact. This is why broadening the remit of translation to D/deaf and disabled languages, artists, and writers is imperative for anyone who cares about feminisms as rooted in equality.

When we think of “the disabled,” I know many in the non-disabled world who have immediate pitying responses. And sadly, it is rarely acknowledged that different ways of living in our world, with varying bodies and minds, is a gift of diversity and a gift to culture. Certainly, pain and discomfort are an intrinsic element of some disabled lives, including of my own, especially in a past where my pain was disregarded for years, as many women experience. Everyone has their own way to describe themselves, and has the right to, as long as there is no assumption then made about others’ experiences.

However, it remains vital to social justice to adopt models that go far beyond the destructive “medical model” that all D/deaf and disabled people need a cure, even if one is proudly autistic, Deaf and/or otherwise in no way desirous of a “cure” to make everyone’s bodies fit an abled norm. The social model, that sees “disabled” as the opposite of “enabled” rather than “unable,” and my own realm of disability poetics in art and literature, show a more just path. Towards the recognition that there are innumerable D/deaf and disabled cultures in the world, whether you’re talking about British Sign Language slang specific to certain parts of the UK, or an Indonesian village in Bali that has its own indigenous sign language, Kata Kolok, or those of us whose artistic creations are informed by being non-normatively bodied. The brilliant legacy of Frida Kahlo, whether or not she identified as “disabled,” per se, and others like her continue to seep into the work of many contemporary disabled artists, skewering stereotype, convention, and the marginalization of our work as “disability arts” of a certain kind assumed to be non-rigorous. We are legion, and I suggest you look us up.

How all this resonates with concepts of translation and feminisms is that once it is understood that D/deaf and disability cultures, including those of indigenous communities around the world, are of inherently equal value to any others, it seems imperative to discuss broadening the views of translation beyond the written word, and beyond the world of speech alone. When I think of translation, coming from a cripping viewpoint, I think of a truly intersectional translation that dignifies D/deaf and disabled cultures, and sees texts on the page and experiences of artworks as translatable in fascinating ways to and from various D/deaf and disabled cultures. I see the output of literature and art by various D/deaf and disabled cultures as translatable to those of you who do not identify as belonging to these worlds, at a time when our humanity continues to be questioned and our lives put at increasing risk.

And I also am fascinated by and am learning more about the limitations and possibilities of translation when it comes to accessibility. With regards to limitations, there are infinite numbers of D/deafness and disability variations in the world. And as I was reminded very recently, it is impossible to make anything “universally accessible.” There are people who cannot access literature and art by virtue of various factors, combinations of bodily and societal, of the body as always societally-framed. However, as I continue to be reminded by colleagues, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Similarly, all human language is asymptotal in translation; as per the children we once were, we can never fully translate what it feels like to be in our bodyminds to another person exactly as we experience them. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

When we widen what “accessible translation” means—to go beyond translating from written word to written word to making work available across, between, and for various D/deaf and disabled communities—we witness firsthand how access self-multiplies.

I’ve become aware of this through projects like “The 12 Acres Project” I created with co-artists from the Bori Women’s Economic Self-Help Group in rural Rajasthan in 2014, as part of the EQUILIBRIUM Residency at Sandarbh in Partapur, India. The women of Bori Village that I was working with as equals were able to have their women-specific song-stories in Vagdi recorded in a studio for me to then translate three of those songs into picture books. Why? Initially it was for my friend Santia Patidar, a deaf member of the by-and-large hearing community of Bori Village, who communicated best not through reading and writing, and had never had access her whole life—despite being much-loved and respected by her community—to the feminist stories in these songs, as they had only been in audible form. Then, accessibility revealed its tendency to grow itself. By making these songs accessible to D/deaf women, we were also making them accessible to children and adults who did not understand Vagdi, the oral language under threat that this music is sung in. This was therefore also a form of preserving cultural heritage for younger generations, and as a way of bridging between the hearing and D/deaf and between men and women, men not having access to the contexts these women’s songs are sung in. This type of language preservation and access-creation is vital particularly as another language goes extinct every two weeks, as with their loss, gendered understandings of each word and song are also lost, and lost, too, are handed-down stories for women to find their strength in. Accessible translation is a feminist act, and it is imperative for “the Global South”—we disabled women are everywhere in the world more marginalized, vulnerable, abused, neglected, and discriminated against than non-disabled women already are, and we deserve more stories that give us power to change our circumstances.

I see accessibility as always a form of translation—everyone sees the world differently, and accessible translation is a form of presenting different ways of living in varied bodies and minds. Accessible translation is about thinking laterally, spatially (i.e. putting performances in accessible venues, and understanding that access isn’t just about wheelchair accessibility, but distances between spaces for the chronically ill, for example), and intersectionally (i.e. something in BSL would not be accessible to D/deaf people who speak other sign languages). And, as we know that all translation is not a direct copy of the original and is in fact in many ways the creation of an entirely new artwork, the possibilities seem endless.

Rather than marginalizing us, translation of literature and art for and by D/deaf and disabled women, but really all D/deaf and disabled cultures, is fertile ground. In print and new media, there is so much to be done. Amidst so much technological change and foment, how many websites are actually accessible? How many people know how to build them? How many people who need them have access to specific reading software or Braille versions of books? What opportunities can audiovisual and other technologies create for the translation of artworks from, among, and between D/deaf and disabled cultures, and non-disabled cultures? In a nutshell, and vitally, how can we better our circumstances by bettering the diversity and accessibility of the ways that stories are told?

Answering these questions is the process, against multitudinous challenges, that many of us have been occupied with for years. Understanding that translation must be feminist and intersectional seems to me, in these times, to be a path urgently in need of pursuing, towards finding better ways to hold each other’s stories with care, and thus each other’s lives.


An image of the author, Khairani Barokka, sitting on a blue park bench, wearing a canary yellow dress with blue arm warmers. Khairani is looking off into the distance.KHAIRANI BAROKKA is a writer, poet and artist in London. Among her honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow and Vermont Studio Center’s first Indonesian writer-in-residence, and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change for arts practice and research. She has presented work extensively in ten countries, and is the recipient of six residencies and multiple grants. Okka is creator of works for the stage, such as Eve and Mary Are Having Coffee. She is also co-editor of HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi, 2016) and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches, 2017), author-illustrator of Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis, 2016), and author of debut poetry collection Rope (Nine Arches, 2017). Her work is published in Poetry ReviewThe RialtoThe New InquiryAsymptote, and other journals, anthologies, and art books. She is a member of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and a PhD by practice researcher in Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures Department.