Waiting for Translation: Why We Matter

It shouldn’t frustrate me so much that a German book has an English title, but it does. This frustration encapsulates some of the struggle for intersectional justice that Emilie Roig exposes. So often concepts and terms are honed in English, and other languages, German included, often co-opt the English words instead of making (e.g. German) words of their own.

That’s because making the words is hard work, as Roig explains. For example, “race” is loaded enough in English, but saying “Rasse” is even more difficult in Germany, where racism is directly linked to Nazi genocide. Terms like “racialized” are very useful, but explaining them to a reader who hasn’t had the opportunity to really reflect on what that means can be more complicated. The debate on inclusive and gender-equitable language in Germany is so heated that it has been described as delirious (Genderwahn). In France, where Roig grew up, the  Académie Française has simply put the lid on it.

Roig draws on her experience as founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice, Berlin, as an activist and political scientist to explore intersectionality and ways of overcoming systemic inequalities in Europe and beyond. She draws on her personal experience of racism as “a product of French colonialism.”

When her kindergarten teacher heard one child say to the other “you’re Black,” she responded: “You don’t say that, it’s not nice.” And so before they’d even got to school, the children learned that Black was a curse word, instead of hearing “he’s Black, you’re white. You’re different, and both beautiful.”

Undoing that prejudice to prevent the violence it produces is hard work. Why We Matter covers oppression at home, school, and university; in the media, in court, and in the workplace; at hospital, on the streets, and within women’s bodies. The end of oppression begins by breaking down these hierarchies, allowing change and loss to happen, learning to live with guilt, and moving towards healing. Like Minna Salami in Sensuous Knowledge, Roig brings an important European perspective to a conversation that often centres on the USA.

I found a huge amount to agree with here – we’ve done a lot of the same reading – and some things to challenge me. Open prisons and noncustodial sentences work in the Nordic context where I live; but while the police are structurally racist in so many places, I’m still not sure what we’d replace them with. This is a book to talk about while reading and after you’ve read it; it covers almost every aspect of how we live and interpret our lives.

Why We Matter: Das Ende der Unterdrückung (The End of Oppression) is already in its third edition, and it was only published this February. Roig’s next online reading is on 23 September, in German.  A French sample translation is available from the publisher and rights holder, Aufbau Verlag, but not an English one – yet. Translators and publishers, now is your chance to change that!

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