Prisoner writing as a form of translation

Prisoner writing as a form of translation

What does writing from prison tell us about both worlds, the inside and the outside? Translators throughout history within four walls. 

Ye Jinghan from Unsplash

Prison is a hidden, marginal space that sets prisoners as others to society. The writing by prisoners is similarly marginalized by the general public. We could consider that prisoner writing, as a literary genre, has been neglected by academia. While the prison boundary is not impenetrable, public knowledge of life in prison remains limited. This is why, prisoners that take on the task of writing about it, are in a way translators and very important testimonies of how life inside looks like. 

The prisoner-writer bridges the divide between the world inside prison and the world outside, working as a translator between the two. Prisoners translate the language and culture of prison on a daily basis, and make it available to everyone. Also, prisoners throughout history have very much attended to translation tasks. This had enormous political implications. Let’s look a bit deeper into this first. 

Historical examples: The dangers of translation 

The solitude of prison is oten conducive to translation. Many translators have continued to translate while serving time in prison. As the epitome of solitary work, translation is an intellectual activity that liberates the mind and has proven to be an excellent means of escape. 

Suffice it to mention Étienne Dolet, who translated Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations deep in his prison cell in Lyon before being condemned to burn at the stake by the Inquisition tribunal. The curious thing about this is that it wasn’t his polemical activity as a writer, nor as a printer, whether Calvinist or atheist, that eventually defeated him: it was his services as a translator. It wasn’t a financial translation, or a commercial translation; just four little words added to a speech by Socrates, in which he said: “And if you died, [death] wouldn’t be anything more to you, since you wouldn’t exist.” Dolet added, “as anything at all”. This, to the Inquisition represented a blasphemous denial of the immortality of the soul. Dolet was burned by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century for providing politically incorrect language services as a translator. 

Another case is William Tyndale and Louis-Isaac Lemaistre de Sacy, two translators who translated the Old Testament while behind bars. Like Dolet, Tyndale too was burned at the stake. At times, religious intolerance has made translation a perilous trade. The same is true of totalitarian ideologies

More recently, the catalan pro-independence militant, Carles Castellanos, is an interesting example to also take into account. Born in Barcelona in 1942, he was trained as an industrial engineer, but Castellanos had a jack of all trades in the language field. He has been simultaneously a linguist, a translator, a lexicographer, a terminologist, a translation professor, director of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona’s (UAB’s) translation and interpretation department, director of a Catalan Berber language observatory and a university researcher, all the while working within movements for Catalan independence. He has also been an ardent defender and promoter of the Catalan language and Catalan culture. His political involvement led him to publish around 10 works on historical (and especially socio-political) topics.  

Twice Castellanos had to go into exile: once in 1974, and again in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympic Games. He fled in response to the many arrests and imprisonments of independentists, as the Spanish authorities sought to suppress any protest in support of Catalan independence while the cameras of the international press were focused on Barcelona. During his detention in 1974, Carles Castellanos learned even more languages. During the 10-month exile that immediately followed this prison term, he translated La Catalogne au tournant de l’an mil (Catalunya Mil Anys enrere) by French historian Pierre Bonnassié, a specialist in medieval Catalonia, and other classical works in other languages. 

Translation between worlds: the inside and the outside of prison 

Translation can work not only as a task or knowledge to acquire. Also, prisoner’s writings can work as a way of getting to know more about what is like to be incarcerated. A bridge of understanding between two worlds. 

What do you know about the lives of people in state and federal prisons? Pop culture tends to overemphasize the violence and chaos while downplaying the monotony of being locked up. In real life, incarcerated people work, take classes if they’re available, work out, make art, watch the news, forge relationships. And many of the people in prison will return home one day. Youtuber and prison reform activist Jessica Kent, in a Medium article, states that when asked these questions: “What is it like in prison? What do you do? Do you work? Can you sleep all day?” this shocked her. “I assumed that just because I knew what prison life is like, that everyone else must know. That could not have been further from the truth”. 

Incarceration has the most profound effect on the person who is serving time, but the consequences reach far beyond facility walls. More than 100 million American adults have immediate family members who have spent time in jail or prison. Incarceration puts significant financial pressure and emotional strain on those families, especially as they struggle to stay connected. Getting to know how life is  inside the walls, might be a way of sharing the experience, and reaching out to people so that they know what it is like. 

At LST we are all about sharing experiences, and making experiences available for all. Reach out to make all voices count. 


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