Redefining Our Terms: Introduction



Welcome to the 50th issue of The Funambulist. For the very first time, the magazine is published both in its original anglophone version and a brand-new francophone edition. The idea was not so much to insure the existence of a French translation, but rather, to start building an economic and logistic infrastructure that would allow us to publish the magazine in multiple languages. We begin with French as it makes sense for us, living in Paris and having received many requests for such a translation over the years. If everything works well, other languages should follow.

Chimurenga Funambulist
Chimurenga, imagi-nation nwar, in Chimurenga Chronic imagi-nation nwar – genealogies of the black radical imagination in the francophone world (April 2021).

I am aware, of course, that the languages we have in mind to prioritize (French, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese, Hindi… one can dream!) are all imperial ones. The ways through which they succeeded in being spoken by dozens (if not hundreds) of millions of people in the world form a history of subjugating violence. This plurilingual effort is therefore far from what one may call “a decolonial gesture.” Rather, we accept this contradiction in order to speak to a greater number of people around the world, in the tradition of internationalism.

These contradictions are only tenable if such a work is done in solidarity with political initiatives aiming to write in and translate languages that are overshadowed (if not erased) by these imperial tongues.

As Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o frames it, “lingua franca functions differently from the language of power. A language of power assumes that for it to be, other languages must cease. It desires to replace or silence all the other languages. But a lingua franca […] simply facilitates communication and dialogue among language equals.” (The Language of Languages, 2023).

Within this context of translation, it is of course, not innocent that this 50th issue’s topic has to do with language. Redefining Our Terms begins with an observation on our present: the achievements of a generation of activists and politically committed intellectuals to have our (anticolonial, antiracist, queer, feminist, etc.) nomenclature surge into public imaginaries, has led to a dilution of this vocabulary’s political meanings. This process is somewhat normal and to be expected, but that’s even more reason to reflect on what we really want to convey when we use these terms. The “We” I mobilize here is the same as the one in our 46th issue, entitled Questioning Our Solidarities (March-April 2023). It is a We formed around internationalist struggles against colonial capitalism, structural racism, queerphobia, and misogyny. But admittedly, it might be a slightly more specific We in this case, as this issue is particularly intended for those of us who, in their commitment to language, desire to be deliberate about the meanings of the terms we use to form our communities of struggle.

This issue thus intends to act a bit like a political glossary, in which each contribution tackles one term in particular. Yet, it is important to note that these glossary entries do not intend to offer an objective, definitive, and undebatable definition of the specific term they engage.

On the contrary, in order to re-inspire a political, useful meaning to each term, they propose a bold interpretation of it through a subjective, if not personal questioning of it.

The nine terms chosen in this issue also does not pretend to reach any sort of exhaustiveness, nor does it suggest that these specific nine terms are the most urgent to interrogate. It does not take hours of reading in our (particularly online) literature to realize that concepts such as “intersectionality,” “abolitionism,” or “reparations” would gain from such an introspection too. Furthermore, powerful critical reflections on other terms—“Latinx” (Floridalma Boj Lopez), “caste” (Shaista Aziz Patel and Vijeta Kumar), “BIPOC,” and “brown” (Sinthujan Varatharajah)—have already populated the pages of The Funambulist in our 41st issue Decentering the U.S. (May-June 2022).

What these seven examples of political concepts have in common, is that they are formulated in English—although Latinx is formed with the Spanish inclusive convention to add an x to deactivate the gendering power of language—and as such, they are subject to be more inspired by anglophone epistemologies. This is also the case for some of the terms examined in this issue. One in particular, “Blackness” (Mohammed Elnaiem and Cases Rebelles), was left as such in its French translation, as a francophone term is yet to emerge and deploy as much meaning as négritude once did. This is also the case for the term “Queer” (Petrus Liu), which has entered many languages other than English, with both powerful effects and traps of meaning to not fall into. The term “Indigenous” (Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Sabrien Amrov) also triggered debate on its translation into French (“Indigène,” “Peuples Premiers,” or what seemed to us the most apt, “Autochtone”). This is not to say that there is no francophone epistemological production around questions of Indigenous struggles against settler colonialism, but rather that the production of meaning around the term “Indigenous” at a global level has been strongly influenced by anglophone (in particular North American and Australian) academic and activist discourses.

Fuck The System Funambulist
When a nationalist relationship to language reaches humorous levels! French nationalist sticker “No to English Everywhere!” next to a “Fuck the System” graffiti in Paris. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2016).

The ways through which anglophone (and francophone) infrastructures of knowledge production can significantly modify the political meaning of a word, is particularly made visible through how epistemologies are forged in the Americas and the Caribbean outside of the U.S. and Canada. Many concepts have been transformed through translation in ways that are not necessarily detrimental, but fail to account for their original provenance. For this reason, we commissioned Verónica Gago to write about the specific conceptualization of violence in the way the South American feminist movement has constructed over the years. Similarly, and even more deliberately, it seemed crucial to resituate the term “decolonial” (Sergio Calderón Harker) in Abya Yala’s Indigenous epistemologies in order to counter the dilution of meaning that has been at work in the popularized use of this word within other contexts/languages. Indeed, our bookstores and libraries have been gradually filling up with books that offer to decolonize just about anything. Admittedly, colonialism infiltrates every aspect of life and it does make sense to want to decolonize more than the land itself. However, recent calls to decolonize relationships, institutions (museums, universities, etc.), neighborhoods or cities in the context of Europe—or even more worrying, in North America or Australia without centering Indigenous sovereignty—seem emptied from the political power of the term “decolonial.”

For all these reasons, it was crucial to me that the issue was also built on terms that exist beyond translation and English equivalents.

Refusing to translate is also, in my opinion, a powerful act of translation, and allows for some political struggles to be formed in/on their own terms.

This is how, for example, the Palestinian struggle for liberation and its supporters have succeeded in imposing terms such as “Nakba,” “Intifada,” and “Sumud” (Rana Issa), thus bypassing debates (sometimes interesting, sometimes not) on whether the notion of “apartheid” is appropriate or not to describe the political reality of Palestine.

For similar reasons, I have insisted for years in my own anglophone practice of describing the space and architecture of the French colonial continuum, to refuse translating the term banlieues into what would be inapt equivalents in English, which would deploy an imaginary specific to the terms chosen (be it “ghettos,” “estates,” “projects…”). This issue thus also mobilizes this term along with the one of quartiers populaires (Mathieu Rigouste), as the concept of populaire in French or populares in Spanish has always hit me as being somewhat untranslatable. The closest translation might be “of/from the people,” where “people” is somewhat implicitly understood as designating the working class. In the case of quartiers (neighborhoods) populaires or barrios populares, the additional implicit layer of political meaning is the racialized dimensions of the neighborhoods’ inhabitants. Admittedly, the complexity of reading a text in English might increase when encountering non-translated phrases such as quartiers populaires, I believe that reading in/on our own terms is important, and its normalization might materialize through their de-italicization. Just like we can confidently write the First Intifada without italics, I would want for the phrase banlieue uprisings (for instance) to naturally flow within a text.

The text written by Maïa Tellit Hawad about the artistic and poetic work of her father, Hawad, who you can see on this issue’s cover, also mobilizes words created in Tamajaght (Tuareg language). The term  “Furigraphy” (invented by Hawad himself), or “Ishumar,” inspired from the word “chômeur” (unemployed) in French, that designates the poetic and musical work of an entire generation of precarized Tuareg young people are two examples of such words. Much further south on the African Continent, Panashe Chigumadzi’s text is a perfect example of organic bilingualism. By going further than the original commission—to take Ubuntu out of the depoliticized kumbaya-like realms where it has been reformulated since the end of the South African apartheid—her contribution is a translation into English of Bantu languages’ political ontologies, on who can be called “human” and who has lost that right due to their deployment of colonial violence and absence of subsequent reparations.

Yucatan Funambulist
Cover Graffiti on urban art in Yucatán, Mexico. / Photo by Viv Lynch (January 2022).

The issue ends with a coda of critical questions around the notion of genocide that Zoé Samudzi had already brought to The Funambulist with her contribution to our 30th issue Reparations (July-August 2020), about the ongoing struggle of Ovaherero and Nama people in Namibia 120 years after the German colonial genocide, and even further with the entire issue she had guest edited (37 Against Genocide, September-October 2021). As the term “genocide” was forged as a legal concept, questioning it for the state violence it understands as its prerogative—and, importantly, the kind it does not—seems like a particularly operative way of ending the issue. With that in mind, I wish you a very pleasant and reflective read. ■