Tales of a DisCO, Straight from the Dancefloor
By Timothy McKeon and Sara Escribano. Originally published in Geo.coop.
Guerrilla Translation is a P2P translation cooperative and collective based in Spain, but operating transnationally. We follow a unique governance model that enables us to work as a translation agency while focusing on activism, care work and commons production. We are guided by our hearts, a commitment to social justice, tarot cards and the seven DisCO guiding principles.
DisCOs are a commons-oriented, feminist, cooperative way for people to work together. A set of ideals and criteria for ensuring that patterns of oppression and violence that permeate our society are not replicated within intentional, cooperative spaces. DisCOs systematize fairness and the recognition of care work. They help to keep projects geared towards the common good, towards the Commons. DisCOs are essentially a system, but systems are best understood when implemented and that’s where Guerrilla Translation comes in. Our small translation collective is the first DisCO—the pilot project.
Guerrilla Translation is a Virgo—the collective took on new members and relaunched in its current form in September of 2018. As such, it seems appropriate that our new incarnation began with a list. DisCOs are based on a set of seven guiding principles that drive the collective forward and keep us from falling under the influence of harmful patterns rampant in a capitalist, patriarchal society in which care receives little recognition. DisCOs are:
- oriented towards social and environmental ends
- multi-constituent in nature
- active creators of commons
- transnational in nature
- centred on care work
- prototypes for new flows of value
- designed to be federated
These seven principles of open-value cooperativism have been widely featured in DisCO’s materials and manifesto, but we’d like to step away from the theory for a moment to offer our insider’s perspective on how this has all played out in Guerrilla Translation. You’ve heard the music, but what’s it actually like on the DisCO dance floor?
As in any endeavor, some things have gone more smoothly than others. We’ve learned a lot in getting our own DisCO up and running and, while we’ve never felt the need or desire to abandon any of the principles, some things are more easily said than done.
That’s my jam!
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Some DisCO principles were a given for us, and if you’ve navigated to this article, they probably will be for you as well. First off, Guerrilla Translation is geared toward positive outcomes in key areas. This was always at the core of the collective, even before the DisCO model had evolved into its current form. Just take a look at the headings on our blog of translated articles: activism, environment, feminism, mind, new economy, P2P/Commons, post-capitalism. These and other topics, such as anticolonialism and antiracism, have always been our inspiration to translate. We translate these articles of our own accord and prioritise this pro-bono content (“lovework” as we call it) as much as any paid translation work. Besides the content we curate ourselves, we are also often contacted by organizations with which we collaborate without establishing money-mediated relationships (e.g Rojava Azadi, Vijana Wetu), acting as a bridge to consolidate a network of like-minded projects and spreading the word on social media or translating pro-bono articles about issues that we consider extremely important. In short, much of our production is not driven by profit.
This is directly related to our mission to be active creators of commons. Again, acting on our initial vision, the translations that we publish and articles that we write on our own website have been designed as a commons of curated knowledge targeted towards certain language communities, making knowledge accessible to those who may not have access to it otherwise. In addition to this content, we also have extensive documentation of our internal processes, which we make available to anyone who may want to learn from our experience or model their own collective’s practices after ours. We have published our handbooks and even a wiki of information about any and every aspect of how Guerrilla Translation operates. These documents are used internally, of course, but we have always felt the responsibility to make everything that we have learned from working together available to the public as well. We see this as sowing a garden of wisdom that will be further cultivated by future Guerrilla Translators and members of other related DisCOs.
Guerrilla Translation is also centered on care work. This is the absolute heart and core of our collective. We are humans before translators, and we prioritise the health of the collective and its individual members above all. As we are spread out across Europe, we use digital tools to stay in contact and support each other. Every day we do a “check in” online, letting everyone know what we’re working on, how we’re feeling, what blocks we’re dealing with and what we’re doing for our well-being. We use Loomio in our own DisCO-like way to carry on on-going discussions about power and fairness within our working dynamics and to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard in decision-making. On top of that, we have a mutual support conga line in which each member of the collective is responsible for providing emotional support to one other collective member, and in turn receives support from their own designated “buddy”. The result is an atmosphere of genuine concern and connection among members, a space where people feel safe to open up and be vulnerable. And this is just what we have managed to create in cyberspace. When we actually meet face-to-face, it’s an absolute love fest, and this makes us incredibly resilient and strong when we are faced with challenges or heavy workloads. It’s much easier to focus on your shared goals and carry out a common vision when you know that everyone has your back.
We bring care into our translation work as well. We are adamant about not using computer-assisted or machine translation. To us, translation is a craft and expression of creativity. We cultivate our translations together, giving our work the consideration and attention that it deserves.
Guerrilla Translation is also multi-constituent in nature. This means that decision-making and ownership is extended to all contributors. Our collective is unique in that there are many ways to participate, each with different levels of commitment, responsibility and ownership.
Hence, the types of relationship a potential member can forge with the collective allows for flexibility and takes into account the vicissitudes of daily life. Casual members have a no-strings-attached relationship with the collective and the collaboration can either be one-time or recurring. Sometimes we feel a mutual spark and decide to proceed to the Dating Phase, a 6-to-9 months onboarding process. During this training phase, the veteran members will be mentoring the dating members who will gradually acquire greater benefits and responsibilities while learning the ropes: the daily rhythms, social dynamics, common practices and convivial tools that we use. At the end of this path they will have to uphold certain commitments and show that they care for the collective and its people before becoming full-fledged Guerrilla Translation members. Sounds epic but it’s an effortless, organic journey! The weight of each member’s benefits, responsibilities and input during a decision-making process will depend on their commitment level. Digital tools keep us in touch and allow us to bring authors, designers and thinkers into the discussion. Our collective is shaped by a dynamic, permeable membrane, not a rigid hierarchy.
This flexibility and permeability of the model lends itself to federation as well. Guerrilla Translation is not only primed for federation, but exists already within a structure of federation, along with Guerrilla Graphic Collective (graphic design and UX) Guerrilla Agitprop (promotion and campaigning), under the umbrella organisation Guerrilla Media Collective. As independent pods that share practices and visions, the translation and graphics collectives work together seamlessly—often in direct collaboration, bringing text and images together, but also in parallel, tracking mutually transferable value within each of the autonomous collectives. Each node can implement the DisCO model according to their specific situation, as translation is not the same as graphic art or web design. However, the value love triangle scheme conformed by livelihood, lovework and carework remains untouched. All nodes need to be in constant discussion with each other about how they are implementing the model, prioritising cross-node carework and mutual support. Guerrilla Media Collective may be the first self-defined DisCO, but interest from other collectives such as Fairbnb, Pixelache and Cooperation Jackson lets us envision a future of federated DisCOs, creating commons together and supporting each other in upholding these principles.
Cue record scratch
This is not to say that we have completely succeeded in isolating ourselves from the perils of capitalist, nationalist society (yet). Two of the DisCO principles have proven particularly challenging to implement and it’s important to address this openly if we want to find solutions.
Operating transnationally may not sound particularly difficult, especially considering that the way we work and communicate in the digital sphere is, by its own nature, transnational. Our drive to spread the DisCO model as far as the eye can see and provide information on how to do so also transcends borders. However, when it comes to legal structure, the conflict between different countries’ systems may carry disastrous consequences. Bureaucratization and legislative rigidity bring with them the risk of overturning value sovereignty or distorting the distribution of carework, seriously disrupting the integrity of the collective. We’ve naively entered into contractual agreements with funding bodies and project partners in different geo-locations who are bound by restrictive bureaucracy and inflexible deliverables, disregarding the damage these usually cause to small organizations and the amount of work needed to navigate such systems. Relationships with entities of this kind can result in considerable economic loss and injustice. We have learnt this lesson the hard way.
Our other challenge has arisen in reimagining the origin and flows of value. Though the problem is not in the process of reimagination, but in the tracking and distribution of value. This is particularly true when trying to comply with legal and contractual requirements imposed on us by governments and institutions that have never encountered a model like ours and basically have no idea what it is that we’re doing. Our coop structure requires monthly salary payments to all members and expects them to be consistent, while our workload and revenue can vary greatly from month to month and be influenced by how much care work any particular member does. On top of that, with members resident in different countries, with different employment rights, some of us have full coop member status by our accounts but must legally be treated as hired contractors. This certainly doesn’t help to distribute power evenly. A further difficulty is trying to reconcile parallel accounting systems when a large client requires payment distribution and the documentation thereof to be done in ways that completely go against our internal model.
Along with our colleagues at Mikorizal, we are currently developing an MVP platform based on existing software to intuitively track and distribute value. Until that is done, though, we’re having to crunch numbers the hard way, distracting us from more fulfilling endeavors and our social mission. This MVP is, however, only the first step of a much more thorough set of tools and practices within the DisCO Project framework.
Gonna make you sweat
The current feeling in Guerrilla Translation is that we’ve got the theory down to a T, and we’re doing really well in terms of internal operations. It will come as no surprise that whenever we encounter difficulties and dead-ends, it’s because we have to navigate the powers that be, systems that were designed to uphold the very practices we’re trying to dismantle. We’ve come to realise that as easy and second-nature as some aspects of DisCO are, other areas will require a more long-term approach, more trial and error and even more innovation. This has forced us to alter our trajectory a bit, but it’s an organic process and it would be delusional to expect neat and flawless implementation (Virgo, remember?) Instead, we rely on DisCO’s ability to adapt itself to the humans that use it as we continue to explore the endless possibilities of this model. It’s worth pointing out that, throughout any of our troubleshooting processes, nobody has ever felt that we should abandon or change the model. Our faith in DisCO remains unshaken. Nobody ever said the revolution would be easy, and besides, if you don’t sweat while you’re dancing, you’re not doing it right.