Paradoxically for a movement seeking to defend the right to speak in its own tongue, the success of Catalan independence may turn on its ability to make its case to Europe and the wider world in English. If, as seems likely, Madrid refuses to accept the legitimacy of a public consultation on the question, it may be external actors who end up making the final call.
Catalans, while wary of the imposition of Spanish internally, are generally open and ready to use English as a Lingua Franca to promote the independence agenda abroad.
This helps to explain the tautological ‘Keep Calm and Speak Catalan’ meme which shot around Twitter recently in response to threats from the Spanish education minster to reduce teaching in Catalan in schools.
There are a number of initiatives which aim to communicate the history, culture, and political complexities of Catalonia in English:
The Catalan News Agency, is publicly-owned and translates Catalan news and opinion pieces into English. The InTransit monthly newsletter (published by the NGO CatDem) and the print journal Catalan International View, are both aimed at journalists and policy makers. Perhaps most importantly, there are increasing numbers of Twitter accounts (and hashtags) in English about Catalonia.
However, despite a willingness to use English in Catalonia, in my experience, there is often a lack of strategic thinking and investment in the implementation. This means that such efforts often fall on deaf ears, or can even end up doing more harm than good to the Catalan brand.
How to use English to sell a nation
I can sum up my advice in one line: Don’t use texts written by Catalans, in Catalan, for a Catalan audience, and then have a Catalan translate them into English.
For better or worse, international political communication is a subtler art than that.
First of all, it is absolutely fundamental to write in correct, readable, fluid English. This means using native translators, or at the very least, proof-readers, whenever possible. This point might seem obvious, but I’m confronted with texts like this on a regular basis:
What kind of image does this give of a country? Not a good one.
Of course, avoiding grammatical and spelling errors is not enough. To convince and persuade, you need not only total command of a language, but also deep familiarity with the cultural and political assumptions of your audience. The independence argument can’t just be translated, it needs to be adapted if it is to be heard.
A straight translation of som una nació to ‘we are a nation’ might sound fine to Catalans, and indeed it is perfectly correct grammatically speaking. However, to British ears it sounds old-fashioned, and in Germany or Austria such a claim to an essentialist notion of national identity borders on taboo.
The question is not just about what not to say in English, it’s also about the kinds of arguments and discourse which can be harnessed to gain international attention and sympathy.
In internal arguments about independence in Catalan I rarely, if ever, hear people mention Franco. Whether this is because it is a subject too obvious to mention, or too uncomfortable, or both, I don’t know. Whatever the case, for most Europeans, the fact that Spain was ruled by a murderous dictator until the 1970s still has the power to shock. Not making explicit reference to the period of dictatorship occasionally is, in my view, a mistake. The following kind of explanation could be very powerful to a European audience:
‘Since Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan leaders have tried to negotiate with Madrid with the aim of constructing a constitutional, political and economic model which will allow us to preserve our freedoms and identity within the Spanish state. Unfortunately, this has proved to be impossible.’
This brief reference to the (very recent) dictatorship would remind international audiences of the history of violence and anti-democratic culture in Spain, without falling into victimization or appearing to be stuck in the past.
A recent example of good practice is ‘What’s Up with Catalonia?’, a book of essays by prominent national figures on the subject of independence. Its editor is Massachussets-based Liz Castro, a long-time Tweeter about Catalan independence in English. The book is aimed at an American public, and Liz’s knowledge of the States has enabled her to tailor the book accordingly, drawing on cultural references, such as the Declaration of Independence and the relationship between the USA and the UK, to better communicate with this audience. Hopefully this kind of nuanced approach will be taken up by other actors and institutions in their quest to speak to the world.
Know your language, know your audience, and Keep Calm and Write in English.