Translating Migration—Negotiating Belonging

The photo shows the ferry's funnel; in the background Kiel harbor and a gray, cloudy sky.

The ferry leaves Kiel – off to the ESSHC in Gothenburg! (photo: Levke Harders, 2023) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DE

This was definitely the best journey to an academic conference ever! In April, I took the ferry from Kiel (Germany) to Gothenburg (Sweden) to travel to the European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC). It was a quiet overnight trip with a fantastic view upon arrival at the Swedish coast. This made me think about the migrants who travelled through Europe in the nineteenth century, how they might have experienced new shores and unknown landscapes. But of course, I was travelling in matters of history, to exchange ideas with brilliant colleagues on topics of gender and migration history, to strengthen networks, and to hear about new research projects. Most importantly, I took the opportunity to share my reflections about translation in and of migration.

Negotiating Belonging: Local Administrative Practices of Migration Control in Modern Europe

The photo shows a flag in blue and white with the titel "European Social Science History Conference". Buildings and trees can be seen in the background.

The ESSHC-flag in Gothenburg (photo: Levke Harders, 2023) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DE

The ESSHC takes place every two years in different European cities and combines several subfields of history, such as migration, gender, or labor. I took part in the session Negotiating Belonging: Local Administrative Practices of Migration Control in Modern Europe. Our papers looked at different case studies from nineteenth century Europe to discuss local migration regimes: Beate Althammer (Berlin) spoke about “Policing Migrants in Prussian Cities (ca. 1850 to 1914)”, Christina Reimann (Gothenburg) about “Migration Policy in Late Nineteenth Century Antwerp and Rotterdam”, Sigrid Wadauer (Vienna) about “The Bureaucracy of Belonging (Late Habsburg Monarchy/Austria)” and my paper dealt with “Translating Migration—Negotiating Belonging” (see below). In her comment, Hilde Greefs (Antwerp), who chaired the panel, highlighted that the four contributions challenged the dominance of the nation-state in migration policy by focusing on the influence of local authorities who often had their own agendas. The panel reconstructed how legislation was implemented in practice and by whom.

Translating Migration and …

When migrants within Europe settled down (or tried to do so), some intended to secure their residence and make it permanent. This process of formal belonging was negotiated not only between a migrant and the administration of a state, but also within the bureaucracy. And, as I have shown at the ESSHC on the basis of two examples from Alsace and the Duchy of Holstein in the 1850s and 1860s, these communication processes had to be translated. What do I mean by translation in this context? I am drawing here on the Translations of Migration research network. This group of scholars has been discussing issues of translation in migration processes for some time.1 I am deeply grateful for our ongoing discussions, which have inspired me to analyze some of my sources from a different perspective. Translation is more than the translation of words from one language to another. Cultural historian Peter Burke describes translation in migration processes like this: “Ideas, information, artefacts and practices are not simply adopted but on the contrary, they are adapted to their new cultural environment. They are first decontextualized and the recontextualized, domesticated or ‘localized’. In a word, they are ‘translated’.”2 Following research in translation studies, in postcolonial theory, and global history, I understand translation rather as an open concept to analyze a number of practices. I do so although translation is rarely named as such in the sources I study. Yet, as an implicit practice, it played an important role for processes of migration and belonging, for migrants and the bureaucracy.

This pictures shows the shores of Gothenburg with water, buildings, shops, a bridge, and a blue sky.

Arrival by ferry in Gothenburg (photo: Levke Harders, 2023) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DE

… Negotiating Belonging

In my paper at the conference, I discussed translation in the context of administrative professionalization in nineteenth century Europe. In processes of professionalization, (new) knowledge is produced, existing knowledge is transferred and re-used.3 Next to these translations, migrants can be conceptualized as “translated being[s]”, drawing on works by translation scholar Paul F. Bandia.4 In his study on African Europhone literature, Bandia connects translation to the experience of migration: “The specific rapport between translation and migration has to do with the politics of this hyphenated migrant space, which involve issues of marginalization, difference, and otherness that the migrant condition brings to the forefront.”5 This inbetweenness and translation is, as I argue, linked to belonging. As translated beings, migrants experience translation either as marginalization in processes of unbelonging or as a transfer of knowledge in processes of belonging—or they have to deal with both.

The first example to develop my argument was a young man in Strasbourg whose nationality was disputed by the French and Bavarian authorities in the late 1850s. Not only had he been born in Bavaria, but his father had been in London for a long time, so local and regional authorities on both sides of the Rhine were unsure of the potential conscript’s formal nationality. The second case I presented was a Jewish lawyer who had left Prussia to seek better professional opportunities in Holstein, but whose petition was caught up in the political transformations during and after the Second Schleswig War (1864). Both examples point at different processes of translation and transactions:6 The French-Bavarian case reveals different translation processes: the oral communication on site in Würzburg and Strasbourg, its translation into writing, and, in a next step, its translation into another language. In this process, information was lost or deliberately omitted, reconstructed and strategically reproduced to present a tailored narrative. Translation came into play as a transfer of knowledge, in particular knowledge of legal rules and administrative practices, both on the part of the administration and on the part of the petitioners.

The examples also relate to the concept of migrants as translated beings: Both men were affected by the processes of administrative communication and translation. Bandia’s concept (or heuristic category) of migrants as translated beings analyzes actors in the web of colonial power and global inequalities, emphasizing the importance of power. Compared to colonial and decolonial disparities, migrants in nineteenth-century Europe were affected differently by state authority. However, migration and translation did not only take place within specific power relations, but migrants were also affected by them directly. Translations, thus, enabled migration, but also complicated belonging. (To be continued.)


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Levke Harders (2023, 22. Mai). Translating Migration—Negotiating Belonging. Migration and Belonging. Abgerufen am 19. Mai 2024, von

  1. For more information see the recent report on the network’s activities (in German). []
  2. Burke, Peter: Translating Knowledge, Translating Cultures, in: North, Michael (Hg.): Kultureller Austausch. Bilanz und Perspektiven der Frühneuzeitforschung. Köln 2009, 69-77, 70. []
  3. Cf. Lässig, Simone / Steinberg, Swen: Knowledge on the Move. New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43 (2017) 3, 313-346. []
  4. Bandia, Paul F.: Translocation: Translation, Migration, and the Relocation of Cultures, in: Bermann, Sandra / Porter, Catherine (Hg.): A Companion to Translation Studies. Chichester 2014, 273-284, 275. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Cf. Rass, Christoph / Weise, Julie M.: Migrating Concepts: The Transatlantic Origins of the Bracero Program, 1919-42. To be published in the American Historical Review. []

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