Global Urban Studies as a Work in Translation

In her study of grassroots urbanism in contemporary Calcutta, Swati Chattopadhyay writes that “the central problem in theorizing cities today is a paucity of vocabulary.”[1] Urban studies, she argues, continues to rely excessively on terms tied to Euro-American typologies and historical trajectories, either assuming a direct translatability between global contexts or flattening cities outside the West into a “planet of slums” or “terrain ready for… aerial bombardment” (referring to studies by Mike Davis and Rem Koolhaas, respectively).[2] Esra Akcan similarly bemoans the equalizing tendencies of urbanist discourse vis-à-vis the modernist enterprise. At the same time, she cautions against a retreat into absolute particularism, asserting that “the belief in untranslatability may draw sharp and fixed borders around places.”[3] In opposition to the translation as domination she instead proposes “the aspiration for translatability from below.”[4]

The workshop “Building a Lexicon for Contemporary Global South Cities,” which I led with Ian Acriche and Ayesham Khan, attempted to begin such a task of translation with the use of text and multimedia objects from Guangzhou, Jerusalem, and São Paulo. The selection of these cities was not based on any pre-established connection or resonance; it was rather based on the languages—spoken, cultural, and intellectual—which each of us brought to the lab from our independent pursuits. These languages opened lines of inquiry that sometimes crossed, sometimes ran parallel to one another, and at other times operated on entirely separate planes. They shed light on translation as a means of political solidarity (the influence of the Black Panthers in Jerusalem, for example) and a way of understanding the local effects of global processes, such as the transformation of rural communities by urbanization. If in Brazil such shifts have historically taken the form of mass migration to the city, in China,  chéngzhōngcūn, or urban villages, exist as formally rural settlements subsumed by urban expansion.

Terms such as informal, designating urban space outside of formal planning, ran through our analysis, but proved to have vastly different connotations in different settings, including, during broader discussion, contexts such as the ancient Greek city and the Moroccan medina. The notion of a “Global South” proved perhaps the most challenging: intended to think beyond an engrained disciplinary eurocentrism, as well as the geopolitical categories of the Cold War, we encountered the term’s limits in an urbanized world shaped by fractal relationships distributed across so-called centers and peripheries. Inherited concepts of “the west” provide insufficient terms for understanding the globalized urban hubs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; at the same time, these hubs are bound together, and to the historical “Western” centers, by immense flows of commerce and migration that shape the built environment in numerous ways.

In the end, our comparative exercise readily imparted a notion I have endeavored to convey to students in language classes: translation is never a matter of creating a one-to-one match between words, of mechanically processing one language into another. The same holds for images, despite their more immediate communicability, and the multi-dimensional flows and typologies that constitute urban spaces. Translation is rather a matter of establishing connections—whether direct or oblique, immediate or delayed—that allow readers, or perhaps visitors to a new city, to enter a space that otherwise would have been closed or illegible to them.

[1] Swati Chattopadhyay, Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), ix.

[2] Chattopadhyay, Unlearning the City, xiv, xv

[3] Esra Akcan, Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 17.

[4] Akcan, Architecture in Translation, 14.