Letter from Barcelona: Why translation is a route to democracy

Culture in the age of nationalist ferment.

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The headlines from Spain in 2019 have fostered the wrong expectations. I anticipated grimness in the Barcelona streets, acerbic complaint, perhaps even further disturbances following the recent ferment.

Instead, the mood this December seems as sunny as the skies. Chattering shoppers and smiling strollers fill the late 19th-century boulevards, grand in their characteristic Catalan mix of Gothic and Romanesque, complete with wrought-iron floral motifs, bright ceramics and sculpture. Come late afternoon, Christmas lights sparkle and large illuminated butterflies flow languidly in the breeze. The next morning the narrow lanes of the Gothic Quarter heave with both locals and tourists. In front of the cathedral, a medley of tunes accompanies a Christmas fair.  

It’s easy to forget that in October 2019, Spain’s supreme court imposed harsh nine-year prison sentences on the leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement. The extradition from Belgium of the former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, was also called for.

Week-long demonstrations and a general strike took over the streets. Over 500,000 protested the verdict of the courts and the influence of Spain’s central government in its making. At night peaceful protest gave way to riots and flames. Flights were cancelled, a Barcelona vs Real Madrid football game postponed.

Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million, while Barcelona’s equals all of Scotland (around 5.4 million). More people speak Catalan than Norwegian, Danish or Finnish, while Catalonia’s landmass is greater than that of several EU countries. Despite the fact that since the 19th century it has had a flourishing bourgeoisie, is industrially prosperous and makes a greater contribution to the central Spanish government than many other provinces (while receiving less back), Catalonia has fewer powers than the Basque region and Navarre.

To an outsider, it can only seem that historical emotions are in play. Why else would a Madrid government – until 2018 under prime minister Mariano Rajoy and his right-wing People’s Party, and latterly under socialist Pedro Sánchez – that is unable to form governing coalitions have been so intent on punishing Catalonia? The show of force seems only to have made Catalans hungrier for independence. They’re Spaniards, too, and just as in Britain, many Catalans in the course of a lifetime move between regions.

I have come to Barcelona to see ‘‘Feminisms’’, an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Culture (CCCB), a venue that thrives on multi-disciplin-arity and multi-lingualism.

Women’s rights have become critical in Spain, where the far-right Vox Party, a player now in mainstream politics, has been arguing against abortion and for laws that criminalise violence against women to be repealed. On Women’s Day on 8 March and again this autumn, hundreds of thousands took to the streets around the country. In September, a “Feminist Emergency” was declared: 19 women had been killed by their partners over the summer. 

Tucked next to Barcelona’s Modern Art Museum, the CCCB spreads around a grand old courtyard. Its buildings, over the centuries, housed a seminary, a barracks and an almshouse. In the 1990s it was modernised to contain exhibition, performance, theatre and lecture spaces, while its programme made a special place for literature and ideas.

A series of well-designed small books, back to back in Catalan and English, publishes lectures by a burgeoning list of writers and thinkers – Colm Tóibín, Herta Müller, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, Zygmunt Bauman, Bernardo Atxaga to name only a few. 

The CCCB’s focus is both local and international. I have seen exhibitions here on JG Ballard, on apartheid, and on WG Sebald; a show by the South African artist William Kentridge opens next year.

‘‘Feminisms’’ doesn’t disappoint. It unites a range of 1970s avant-garde photography and historical work from Vienna’s Verbund Collection, with classics of Spanish feminism created during Franco’s dictatorship. ‘‘Gender Choreographies’’, the second part of the show, curated by the Catalan feminist Marta Segarra, travels into a present of ‘‘feminisms’’ understood as a loose movement in which various forms of oppression intersect. The work interrogates gender norms across race and class and into the post-human landscape of cyborgs and hybrids.

I move from Martha Rosler’s deadpan Semiotics of the Kitchen, which is like an early TV cookery programme made by a terminally depressed housewife, to the Brazilian Letícia Parente’s Task 1, 1982, where a maid beautifully irons a garment with its owner still inside. The rich trove underscores the efflorescence of women’s art over the past half-century.

Later, there’s a performance of Grrrls!!!, an electrifying evening of feminist manifestos culled from Woolf, Audre Lorde, de Beauvoir and Spanish sources. Catalonia, with its ease in at least two and often three or more languages, is far more international than we are in Britain.

CCCB director Judit Carrera tells me that to be “in translation” is their only way of being in our world. Translation, in itself, is a lesson in democracy, a guarantee that there are no overpowering absolutes. The CCCB thrives on a plurality of voices and sifts the recent political ferment. Born into democracy, this post-Franco generation is willing to confront his legacy, the unmarked graves of the civil war, and Catalonia’s role in Spain.

The CCCB has instituted an annual day in honour of George Orwell, a writer who insisted on the freedom to tell uncomfortable truths. As Masha Gessen, last year’s guest lecturer at the centre, noted, Orwell was allergic to single-truth communities, such as dictatorships, which lived on lies and “where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment”.

Being “in translation” may be key to keeping ideas alive, particularly when you live in the wake of a dictatorship that granted women no legal rights, not even of association or work, and heavily censored their writing. Feminisms here are in the plural, too.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special