Indonesian writer and artist Khairani Barokka writes on ableism in literature and translation.

[Content warning: intertwining of multiple forms of harm]

We read a work in translation and, in the midst of engrossment, a word that hurts is flung into our chest. It aches, perhaps breeds ache the diameter of a single coin. Perhaps that coin-shaped pain is carried with us, in however subtle a way, throughout the day, or year, or many years to come. Language is not a throwaway thing; it endures, persists, burrows into, is always specifically targeted weaponry. What it fights against defines our impression of it; what lingers in minds influences daily movements, our very ligaments, our conversations, in its wake. A single word that hurts can colour our memory of the text, and – as we all know – our understandings of both author and translator: our notions of them as people who either do or do not take the time to care about whether or not their words contribute to interlocking systems of supremacy and hatred.

We in the writing and translating communities strive, I hope, not to cause such lapses of care. Increasingly, tools are available for us to examine our potential biases of sexism, racism, ageism, classism, transphobia, heteronormativity. But how much do we care about – how much do we examine – ableism? It’s deeply underdiscussed, and a matter of urgency for us as writer-translators.

What are the options for writing ‘disabled’ or ‘D/deaf’ in another language? What are the specific cultural contexts, tropes, and understandings of those words in a text? I wish to plaster these questions onto every piece of writing (particularly those that use ableist tropes) before a translator agrees to take it on; before a publisher signs up to promote and distribute it; before the aches might begin for readers, unbeknownst to those involved in the circulation of literature, or with their knowledge. (Repeat, of course, for language with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, classist aims, all of which goad each other on; for any language that hurts for the sake of it.)

‘Blind’, ‘deaf’, ‘mute’, ‘lame’, ‘stupid’, ‘crazy’ are used in ableist ways rampantly, unthinkingly (think: ‘blind spot’, ‘tone-deaf’ as pejoratives, as opposed to ‘blind man’) in at-times-garlanded lit in translation. For us D/deaf and/or disabled people, the greatest minority in the world, this is an urgent issue.

Ableism is a tenet of white supremacy; in Java, for instance, understandings of D/deafness and disability as spiritually revered were replaced by the medical systems of the Dutch missionaries. Violence lingers in lines of beauty. It either condones or condemns a massacre of rights for bodies shunned by an ablenormative world; either rejects or keeps in place the widespread abuse – historical and present – of D/deaf and disabled people by a world built for abled bodyminds. This, of course, is not the only way in which words can hurt, but ableism in literature is as underdiscussed as it is pervasive.

Ableism in the translation industry can be discerned in manifold ways: in the inaccessibility of spaces, online and offline, in which it operates; in which linguistic arts are considered ‘literature’, whereby sign languages and other disabled languages are excluded; in the content of the stories we choose to translate, and how. This stems from the concepts of disability and D/deafness being regarded as uncomplicated, unnuanced, and ‘purely’ biological – rather than phenomena so often influenced by sociocultural and economic factors.

I am fearful of what even we, as D/deaf and disabled translators, do to further ableism in ways we do not discern. D/deaf and disabled writers and translators must also understand that our own understandings of words and meanings as they relate to bodyminds are culturally shaped, always subjective, always fluid. We must understand that our disabled and sign languages differ from those in another region. That notions of which words are harmful in people shift geographically and according to distinctions of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, biome.

It behooves us all to investigate not only the use of disability tropes, but the contexts in which they are being used in a text. In terms of author-translator collaboration, this is a fruitful opportunity.

As those in the translation community know, translating is an artform involving the wearing of many hats: we are writers, editors, and, in the best situations, fiercely protective of both the source text and our rendition of it. When we enter into an agreement to translate a work, we should in the first instance truly be sensitivity readers for ourselves, for what we might enter into (and, of course, for all the people we might impact). We should feel free to refuse work that uses weaponised language, enter into dialogue with the writers we represent if we wish; we should continue to educate ourselves on the ways in which language can harm, should apologise for mistakes and move forward, as a result, as better humans, better artists, better translators.

This includes paying attention both to the finer intricacies of how complex, culturally-refracted concepts such as ‘disability’ are conceptualised in our source text, and to the larger intricacies of how the work came to be with us, why this author and not others, and how much trust we place in arts institutions.

Becoming a more sensitive, caring industry also involves understanding that the astounding lack of accessible e-books, audiobooks, Braille options, wheelchair-accessible and distance-sensitive venues, sign language interpretation, scent-free spaces and relaxed performances are not simple, miniscule ‘oversights’. All of this is a funneling of time and resources, internationally, towards systems that keep ablenormativity supreme. It is not the job of us disabled and D/deaf people to educate abled people, yet we are consistently asked to provide emotional and physical labor in service of access for free, instead of being treated and paid in the first instance as consultants. When our literature is inaccessible, this comes of course with attendant disrespect for, and underestimation of, those of us who reject ablenormativity and continue to write, to work in the field, to translate, to interpret, and to bear daily slights and humiliations – to slough off – in order to continue to contribute to art.

When our literature is inaccessible, in my mind, I see marks everywhere stating: ‘For Abled People Only’. Imagine if those marks were made more palpable to abled folk. Instead of ‘I’m sorry the venue is inaccessible’, emails would say: ‘I’m sorry this is for abled people only’. Imagine if whole bookstores had signs on shelves saying: ‘We’re sorry, this is for sighted people only’. Storied publishing houses saying, in signatures: ‘We’re sorry, we’ve never taken on a D/deaf and/or disabled writer in all our years of operating’.

How we craft statements twists emotions, carries heft, as all of us who employ language know too well. Each day, literary industries choose which bodyminds to protect and which to target with harm; it’s time all of us committed to learning, to understanding how, why, and what we can choose to do, with utmost deliberation, with care.


Khairani Barokka is an Indonesian writer, poet and artist in London whose work has been presented extensively, in 15 countries. Among her honours, she is Modern Poetry in Translation‘s Inaugural Poet in Residence and a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change. Her books are Rope (Nine Arches) and Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis), and she is co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches). Her most recent exhibition was Annah: Nomenclature at the ICA. http://www.khairanibarokka.com/

Photo credit: D. Kakembo.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s