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At a tense World Social Forum, an interpreter finds herself lost in translation

We are Latin Americanist Hindi interpreters from the subcontinent, bespectacled Brazilian graduate students who served in the Israeli army, rangy Galician professionals fresh from the European Union's halls. We are Welsh-Egyptian pan-Arabists in feathered Panama hats, dainty U.N.-bound Lebanese, and Argentine French literary translators.

Well, that's who they are, some of my 500 fellow interpreters at January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a progressive powwow 150,000 participants strong.

I, on the other hand, am an Israeli-born Jew living in the United States, with an elite education and an upper-middle-class background. Only a vote for Bush last fall would have completed my role as the consummate World Social Forum pariah.

A participant in January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil sends mixed messages.
photo: Irin Carmon
A participant in January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil sends mixed messages.

"So you're the enemy," laughs one interpreter.

Enemy or not, being an interpreter seems like the perfect way to participate in the anti-Davos while maintaining some neutrality. A couple of days before leaving for Argentina on a thesis research grant, I heard that the Forum was desperate for certain languages. Hebrew was on the list, and they would cover all expenses for a week in Brazil.

As a longtime fence-sitter, I figure I can weather the tough talk about Israel—to say nothing of the United States—that this will inevitably entail. So it's no surprise that my list of assigned events is laden with "Confronting Zionism: Bringing Together Global Movements Against Racism" and "Youth Caravan From the Arab Street." Clearly, it's gonna be a party for me and the two Brazilians on the Hebrew team.

Our closest allies, thanks to the scheduling, are the Arabic-language team. "We interpreters will have one solution to the Mideast conflict," one young Lebanese woman says graciously. At our first event, another borrows my mirror. "I love Estée Lauder!" she gushes.

That morning's panel on the racist foundations of Zionism is stalled by the fact that none of the interpreting equipment works—recurring theme—so we mostly sit around and try to help informally.

My Spanish comes in handy for two attendees who want to comment: a Mayan activist from Guatemala with gold teeth and traditional dress, a young Mapuche woman from Chile.

"We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause," I say slowly, translating their responses into English for the Palestinians. "We too had our land taken away by the colonial oppressors . . . "

Are interpreters allowed to comment? This isn't exactly the most formal setting, so later, as politely and diplomatically as I know how, I ask the panelists to clarify the applicability of the word "racism" to describe the Israeli discrimination against the Palestinians, since I think it doesn't encompass the multiple races, ethnicities, and religions at issue.

"I say racism because it's the kindest word I can use," replies a panelist from the West Bank. Her voice shakes. "I could use 'apartheid.' I could use 'genocide.' "

When she starts describing the effect of the separation wall on her life, she has to stop, because she's crying.

From that moment on, everyone onstage directs their comments—all of them—to me. They look me in the eye as they tell me what my country has done to their lives.

"Is it possible for a prisoner to love the prison guard?" asks one panelist, a kindly older Palestinian man. Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes. He tells the audience about his own experience in an Israeli prison befriending the man who guarded him, who reminded him of his father. Later, he tells me that I remind him of his daughter.

The handful of Israeli Jews at the Forum are proudly anti-Zionist. I meet one who grew up in a kibbutz after his leftist parents were forced into exile by the Argentine dictatorship. Radicalized by his army service during the Lebanon war, he says, "I went and joined the most far-left, out-there group I could find." He hands me a video called Anti-Zionist Jews and tells me I can find him at the Palestinian tent any time.

A few days later, sent to a debate on strategies against neoliberal globalization to do some emergency Spanish-English interpretation, I end up in the back, talking to another interpreter from an unidentified South American country.

"You're Jewish?" he asks, peering at the Hebrew label on my interpreter's tag.

I nod.

"But you're the nicest Jew I've ever met!" he exclaims.

English isn't his first language. Who knows what he really means?

Sure enough, "nice" has nuances. Gesturing toward my pale face and blue eyes, he explains: "I mean, I didn't know Jews could be good-looking. I thought they looked Semitic."

I spend my free time trying to find a panel that has nothing to do with the Middle East. It isn't easy to find an event of any kind that's actually happening at the appointed place and time. I wander through the crush of humid tents, between street vendors and impromptu marches of Hare Krishna and Trotskyists.

But I can't escape. The first tent with some action is an event sponsored by the local Jewish community, bringing together Bethlehem University executive vice president Manuel Hassassian and Edward Kaufman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also present is a rare, rightward voice, Pilar Rahola, a Catholic journalist from Spain, who is defending Israel in fervent tones when I walk in.

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