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Translators and global workers unity

December 30, 2017

Goals and techniques in the Comintern era

The following memo, dating from 1999, describes how the work of translators contributed to building international solidarity in the era of the Russian revolution.

It was written for the information of those translating conferences of the socialist movement in Canada and is published here for the first time. 

Book references are to volumes on the Communist International that were published by Pathfinder Press and are still in print; for details, see below.

For Spanish translation see La Izquierda Diario.

Translation at 2WC

Angelica Balabinoff, center, translates from notes at Second Comintern Congress.

By John Riddell. The era of the Russian revolution saw a flourishing of broad international workers’ congresses, at which proceedings were fully translated and subsequently published in several languages.

This achievement was a foretaste of the unification of working people that would ultimately do away with capitalist national antagonisms.

The epoch of the revolutionary second and third Internationals – 1889 to 1924 – was marked by sharp and growing antagonism among the imperialist powers of Europe, the region where the revolutionary workers movement was then centered.

Not long before, between 1855 and 1870, Europe’s great powers had fought four major wars. From the 1890s, Europe was gripped by an arms race between opposed imperialist blocs. Then came the great inter-imperialist war, which only heightened antagonisms. In such conditions, the building of a workers’ international was in itself was seen as a treasonous act against bourgeois patriotism.

Many leaders of the workers’ movement at that time were fluent in several major languages. To most leaders, German was an acceptable working language. But the International aimed to be a workers’ organization, open to fighters without a broad international experience, and this meant translating the entire proceedings of its main gatherings.

Details of translation had political significance. When Skrypnik proposed to speak in Ukrainian (Founding the Communist International, p. 21),[1] the British journalist Ransome took it as a joke. But only two years previously, under the tsar, use of the Ukrainian language in public institutions had been banned. Now it was an acceptable language in a world congress. Similarly, when Liu Shaozhou spoke (p. 204), it was the first use of Chinese in any international workers’ gathering, and probably in an international conference of any kind.

The form of translation was shaped by the character of these conferences: they were large assemblies of equals, functioning without sound amplification. In such meetings, the speaker can be heard only if there has to be absolute silence. To grip the audience’s attention, the speaker must talk extemporaneously, responding attentively to shifts in the listeners’ thinking. Hecklers can totally disrupt the meeting: they must be answered effectively, and the speaker must reassert command through the force of ideas.

This tradition of unamplified public speaking was still alive when our movement held soapbox meetings in the 60s. Now it has been undercut by loudhailers and sound systems, which enable a speaker to drone on even though no one listens. But the old tradition still lives in many ad-hoc workers’ gatherings.

In a large, unamplified meeting, you cannot do voice-over or whisper translations without disrupting the proceedings. Sentence-by-sentence translation was technically possible, of course, but was not done, probably because it would break the dynamic flow of speech so necessary to the conduct of the meeting. In the main, translators took notes during the speech and then, after its conclusion, reconstructed the entire speech in the second language. (see Founding the Communist International, pp. 21, 24, 25; Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite,[2] pp. 15; To See the Dawn, p. 25, 114-15).

Establishing effective translation in the 1919-1920 Comintern congresses was a struggle. The congress’s overall translation service handled the main languages, and more informal arrangements were made to meet the needs of smaller language groups. Sometimes the translation was abbreviated — only a brief summary of the original. Sometimes, on the other hand, the translator would be inspired by the spirit of the original to improvise, as in John Reed’s probably somewhat fanciful story about Quelch’s experience at Baku (To See the Dawn, p. 25)[3].

In the photo signature to the first volume of Workers of the World, we see a picture of Balabanoff translating at the Second Congress. The Swiss delegate Humbert-Droz said her translations were often imaginative, but here she seems to be sticking closely to her notes. It is typical of the culture of our movement at that time that Balabanoff, a Russian whose experience abroad was mostly in Italy, should be found ably undertaking translations into English and (where Humbert-Droz was concerned) into French.

The Baku congress presented a particular challenge because of the large number of languages spoken – the 36 ethnic groups recorded by the credentials committee is certainly far from a full total. Many delegates spoke loosely related Turkic languages, and there was plenty of room for disagreement over whether Language A would be intelligible to speakers of Language B.

What stands out from this record is that despite emergency conditions and extreme shortage of human resources, these congresses were able to establish the principle of full translation, not only into the main languages of Europe but into many important languages of Asia. There was nothing like this at that time anywhere outside the revolutionary workers’ movement. Lenin was particularly insistent on the importance of translating into the languages of the oppressed – see his unexpected advice to a delegate from Mexico in Workers of the World, pp. 12-13.

Stenographers 2WC

Stenographers (below) transcribe words of Lenin at Second Comintern Congress. Behind Lenin, Zinoviev; to his left, Radek.

There’s another picture in that Second Congress photo section that could be used to illustrate your remarks: Lenin addressing the July 19 opening session. Before him are a circle of white-bloused secretaries taking notes. These are stenographic notes – a transcription of the entire congress – and in this photo they are being taken simultaneously in French, German, and Russian, as they were throughout the congress. The resulting shorthand notes were typed up as the congress proceeded, just as at our own gatherings today. By the next year, at the Third Congress, this procedure had been refined to the point that substantial portions of the congress proceedings could be published in several languages the very next day – in the daily congress newspaper. Now there’s a record for our present-day typing and editing teams to match!

The tradition of the revolutionary workers movement was then that full proceedings of major congresses should be published within a year of the event for education of and discussion by the party ranks and the broader working-class public. The Communist International was able to do far more in this direction than its predecessor (the Socialist International). This was possible, above all, because it possessed an authoritative central leadership and built an efficient central administrative apparatus, both of which the Second International lacked altogether.

When the First Congress was held, in 1919, the Civil War was nearing its hour of greatest emergency for the Soviet government, and conditions were far from ideal for publication of congress proceedings. The first attempt was something of a mess, and Lenin wrote some sharp words in reproof. (Founding, p. 322, fn. 53. It’s worth looking up the full text of Lenin’s letter, Lenin Collected Works, vol. 35, p. 427, whose wording is even more severe.) The next year, at the Second Congress, conditions were still far from ideal, and the secretaries expressed their frustration in an introductory note to the congress proceedings reproduced in Workers of the World pp. 61-62. Nonetheless, their achievement was impressive. Within a year, they managed to publish closely set 500-page editions of the complete proceedings in English, French, German, and Russian, as well as shorter handbooks containing the main resolutions. My work on the Pathfinder edition of this congress showed that the secretaries had in fact done a close comparison of the transcripts in different languages and achieved a high standard of uniformity and clarity in at least the French, German, and Russian editions.

Meanwhile, the broader publishing work of the International was gathering momentum. From 1919, the International’s bulky journal, Communist International, was regularly published in several languages. Russische Korrespondenz reproduced a rich array of current documents from Soviet Russia in German. An impressive array of pamphlets made available the basic works of Marxism and current documents of the International in all the main languages. Following the Baku congress, a massive publishing effort was undertaken in the languages of Asia (To See the Dawn, p. 30). Preparatory work was beginning toward the publication of an authoritative edition of the works of Marx and Engels in German, which got underway in the mid-1920s.

And late in 1921, the International undertook to create a weapon that could give practical guidance to the worldwide struggle of its partisans: Inprekorr – an international revolutionary press service. About three times a week a new issue, containing both news and political analysis of developments in many countries, was sent out from Moscow in several languages.

After Stalinism triumphed in the mid- and late-1920s, the translation and publication work continued for a time, but the revolutionary message was no longer there. After a time, even the pretense of internationalist publishing activity fell away. Republication of the decisions and proceedings of the early International was halted in 1934. Publication of the definitive edition of Marx and Engels’ works was halted. Soon writings of the Bolshevik leaders – apart from Lenin—became unavailable; Stalin’s clique murdered most surviving members of this leadership. The last international “congress” took place in 1935. The Stalinized shell of the International was cast aside in 1943.

But the tradition of translation in service of the revolution has been preserved and given vigorous form in the work of Intercontinental Press (1963-85), Pathfinder Press, and New International.

March 12, 1999

Addendum: Translation in the Second International

The absence of a central leadership and apparatus in the Second International limited the scope of translation. International congresses, held each year, were translated by the method described in my previous note. In one case, the Stuttgart congress, a French stenographic record of the proceedings was kept and published. But, significantly, it was not compared with the German version before publication and departs significantly from the German text. Clearly, the French-language secretaries went home and did it on their own. I did not run across other translated records of the world congresses. The congress records themselves were abbreviated, running to 100 pages or so; the resolutions were usually 1-3 pages. The International itself did not have a major publication.

The main journal of the international revolutionary working-class movement of that period was the SPD’s Neue Zeit. Then there was Vorwärts, and, with the rise of the SPD Left, Leipziger Volkszeitung. Many articles from its pages were translated. This was also a rich period for publication of books presenting Marxist analysis of history and current society. Kautsky’s books were translated into many languages – above all, into Russian. The English edition of Bebel’s Women and Socialism that came out only a few years after the German original. Most of the major works were in German, but there were also major works in French (e.g. Paul Lafargue), Italian (Antonio Labriola), and Russian (Georgii Plekhanov).

During these years, German was the second language of peoples in a broad zone including Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and non-Germanic Austria-Hungary, and was widely used elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Russian Marxist leaders generally knew German from their exile years. And German was the main language of Marxist discussion. The records of the Zimmerwald Conference and the Zimmerwald Movement, for example, are in German.

But the death of Liebknecht and Luxemburg ended the epoch in which major works of Marxism originated in German. The first and second Comintern congresses make clear that the workers of the Soviet republic were now politically in the lead on all questions. German was the foremost language of the early Comintern because of its orientation to win the revolutionary forces coming out of the old Second International and to win the working classes of Germany and other countries where German was a major language. It is significant, in this respect, that Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders commonly spoke in German at early Comintern congresses.

Revolutionary forces elsewhere were accustomed to working from German originals, and for some years after 1919 they continued to do a lot of that. Judging from the evidence in Ian Angus’s Canadian Bolsheviks, it seems that Maurice Spector, an early leader of the Canadian Communist Party, was getting his facts on the world movement mainly from German-language sources. Russische korrespondenz carried occasional texts of the Left Opposition as late as 1926. Nonetheless, from 1918-19 the key texts were all originating in Russian, not German. The Communist movement internationally quickly learned to translate with facility out of Russian.

And with the emergence of the Left Opposition, Russian was the only language in which major Communist texts were initially available. Max Eastman (a prolific translator from Russian) called his early (c. 1926) defense of the Left Opposition The Real Situation in Russia. Translation out of Russian was the literary backbone of the pro-Trotsky Left Opposition and the Fourth International to the death of Trotsky and beyond.

March 21, 1999

[1]. Founding the Communist International, Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, 1919, ed. John Riddell, Pathfinder, 1987.

[2]. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, ed. John Riddell, Pathfinder, 1991.

[3]. To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, Proceedings of the First Congress of the Peoples of the East, ed. John Riddell, Pathfinder, 1993.

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One Comment
  1. geoff1954 permalink

    Thanks for both of these pieces John. To me they are one more reminder of the enormous value of the work you and Mike Taber have done, to keep the Comintern Project alive. Once again you deserve a salute from all of us who benefit from your diligent work and professional standards.

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