Reflections on the Global Language Justice Workshop

“Global Language Justice: An Interdisciplinary Workshop” brought together scholars from across continents for the final gathering of a three-year collective undertaking. Rather than providing closure, however, the breadth and intensity of the discussions at the full-day workshop generated still more openings, raising new questions about the future of language justice in our rapidly shifting global landscape. These questions were generated through dialogue across disciplines—practices of translation between comparative literature, education, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, among others. Questions of public policy intersected with theoretical interventions, concepts from one discipline were carried across into others, and critiques reached towards shared understandings—and always raised new questions.

I would like to share just a few of these questions here, in the hope of opening them up further. Of central importance during the workshop were questions surrounding translation—not only its imbrication in colonial systems of domination but also its potential to work against them. Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s presentation asked us to consider the ways in which the display of forcefully acquired museum objects as artworks rather than anthropological artifacts and the translation of oral literature into colonial languages might decenter dominant languages and cultures. This resonated with Carol Benson’s discussion of a model of simultaneous bilingual education, which, in teaching a dominant and non-dominant language together, encouraged students to think critically about the relations between them and worked against the “monolingual habitus” too often marking educational development projects. Such forms of contact between non-dominant and dominant languages, marked by attention to their aesthetic and linguistic features, may open possibilities for movement between languages that unsettles linguistic hierarchies.

Yet translation also runs the risk of reproducing existing linguistic hierarchies. This is evident in imbalances in global flows of translation, as texts are predominately translated into dominant languages, particularly English. In comparative literature, translation risks incorporating texts into an existing body of literature on dominant terms; it may also alter the conditions of creativity in non-dominant languages, particularly through the transformation of oral narratives into print. Translation is irreducible to a neutral practice—even when state institutions profess its supposed impartiality. Tommaso Manfredini’s presentation asked us to consider the ways in which interview processes for refugees in Italy discounted the significance of discrepant translations, the citational structure of legal proceedings contingent on the use of familiar terms. Alternate practices of listening may provide opportunities to rethink the possibilities of translation; Elise Pestre, for example, described the unique positioning of researchers in refugee camps, distinct from that of caregivers and interpreters who were confined by institutional regulations. Still, researchers also grapple with ambiguities of translation, as well as their own positioning. Researchers’ translations, too, are not free from mediation—even as they may seek to destabilize conceptions of national and linguistic boundaries.

The destabilization of linguistic boundaries harbors both risks and possibilities—another thematic arising in the workshop’s discussions. While delineating between languages might bolster calls for linguistic rights, it might also undercut possibilities for more profound forms of linguistic democracy. The demarcation of linguistic groups has been a means of anthropological classification and technique of violent colonial domination. Language has been used to classify ethnic groups—and potentially pit them against each other. And yet the discourse of linguistic rights, bound to the strengths and shortcomings of human rights discourse, remains an important route towards the protection of non-dominant tongues and the institutionalization of movements calling for linguistic justice. In her presentation, Simona Škrabec discussed the significance of the discourse of linguistic rights in enabling groups to articulate their struggles for linguistic justice while also recognizing its potential limitations. The final presentation of the day, given by Madeleine Dobie, attended to the possibilities of democratic performance emerging in the Algerian hirak, asking what it might mean to decouple the concept of linguistic democracy from that of linguistic rights.

This brings us to perhaps the most pressing concern coursing through the day’s discussions: what is the relation between linguistic justice and social justice? The workshop’s presentations and discussions opened a multiplicity of possibilities, requiring us to rethink our notions of proximity and distance, expression and representation. In his concluding remarks, Philippe Van Parijs suggested that linguistic justice cannot simply mean justice between languages; rather, if linguistic justice intersects with the discourse of rights, it is through its concern with the rights of human beings rather than simply languages themselves. Linguistic justice and social justice are not simply analogous causes; instead, we need to ask what linguistic conditions are necessary for social justice. At a moment of conclusion, we thus find ourselves at an opening. We are called to examine again the significance of the terms of our collective undertaking—the significance of language, of justice, and of conceptions of the global.


By Charlotte Silverman, PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. “Global Language Justice: An Interdisciplinary Workshop,” which took place virtually on June 30th, was hosted by the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University, and sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Office of the Dean of Humanities at Columbia University.

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