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English in Berlin (English Version)

English in Berlin (English Version)

Surprise Subscription #28


In 2021, artist, researcher and curator Moshtari Hilal and political geographer Sinthujan Varatharajah held a talk on Instagram Live, where they discussed the prevalence of the English language in Berlin. Whether in cafes or restaurants, museums and art spaces, spoken on the street or in the Bürgeramt, it’s everywhere – also in our own newsletters, reviews and social media! It’s one of the things that gives Berlin its cosmopolitan shine.

But there’s another side to things, and this is what Hilal and Varatharajah bring to light in their talk, given physical form by Wirklichkeit Books in this striking blue reader. 



English is international, seemingly universal – but who do we exclude, when we decide to speak and write in English? Who do we disinvite from our spaces? For those people whose languages and voices are consistently marginalised in the West, is the use of English just another barrier between them and full participation in the societies and economies that they are so often propping up with their labour? 

For this month’s Surprise Subscription, we spoke with Moshtari and Sinthujan about the process of bringing this talk to life as a book, and where the conversation goes from here…




So, first thing: thank you both for making time to talk to us about the book! We like it a lot and we think it’s a great choice for our Surprise Subscription. What we thought we could talk about first is the process of turning your Instagram live talk into a book. How was that for you? How did you come to the decision to take the talk and turn it into a physical book?

Moshtari Well, originally, the talk series was really spontaneous. You know, it happened during the lockdown and everyone was trying to make use of their free time and the media resources that we had. And as you might know, one of the talks we held, that was about the Nazi heritage of German cultural institutions and producers, kind of overshadowed the other talks that we had. So when we were approached by Wirklichkeit Books with the idea to turn one of the talks into a book, we were really happy that they chose this conversation and not the one that was already so prominent.  Originally the idea was to transcribe it and to edit the things that made no sense when written down. But when we started to edit on Google Docs, it continued like a conversation does. So basically I would add something and then ask a new question and then Sinthujan would respond and add another thing. And the document kind of grew over several days, and at some point our editor had to stop us because he was like, now it’s getting too long. It’s over budget. Like this conversation has to stop. I would say this book is maybe 50% bigger, longer, more complex than the original conversation.

Sinthujan I think in the editing process one of the interesting bits was for us to take a discussion that we had, a conversation, and then to continue it in writing and be challenged with how or if we would like to keep the format of a conversation, or whether we would adapt to the mode that we were publishing in. I think that’s one of the debates that we kept on having throughout the process of editing and writing and transcribing the book. And I think that whatever came out of it is that kind of compromise.



When reading the book, at least when we were reading it, you really get the sense of it being a spontaneous discussion. And we were interested in your use of anecdotes to stimulate the discussion and center other voices. How far was that intentional? as a part of the discussion and then also part of the process of publishing a book?

Moshtari  I think it was really intentional because the whole approach that we had during the talk series, and specifically also in this book about Berlin, about the local experience, was a centering experience. So centering subjective analysis or just subjective witnessing of certain things and then creating analysis from it. I think sometimes we are too shy to make assumptions, to go into critical discussion and reflection, because we think we don’t have the expertise to do this. The idea was to turn it into something that is open, an open discussion. So we asked our followers to send in anecdotes, to share their experience, and we built the analysis from that, and mixed it with our experience with the city and with language policies. 

Sinthujan As Moshtari was saying, we really were using it as a way to platform observations that everyday people make but don’t feel necessarily encouraged to turn it into an analysis of the city. And we are always pushed to consult so-called experts, but this creates a barrier between, you know, what is expert knowledge and what is more like local knowledge. And we try to really crumble those barriers and have a bit of a bold approach by saying that all of us are witnessing and observing as well, and are complicit and participating in social reality in a city. And we all have stakes in it. And therefore we also all have rights to comment on it. And that’s what we were trying to do. AndI think a lot of experts oftentimes are forced to or are trained to talk in a very sterile way, by citing numbers, statistics, and by depersonalizing themselves, as if they are objective observers, and they’re neutral in their observations. And we were challenging that from the very beginning, by saying that we are not, that’s not the premise that we operate on. And therefore, we also include our personal experiences and our personal biographies and feelings towards things.





I think for us, this makes it especially accessible, which we very much like about it. It’s the same thing that we’d say about the format the book was translated to. It’s more like a reader, so it’s not something that somebody would be actually scared to read. It’s not intimidating to pick up.

Sinthujan I think a lot has to do with the fact that we started off on Instagram, specifically in this format of IG Live. At the point when we started it, that big pandemic obsession about IG Live was already fading. We came in quite late, which is why we were quite surprised that it took off so well. And I think the format in itself already conditioned the type of conversation that we’re having because it was happening on our personal accounts and therefore we were involving our personal followers as well. And they’re already attuned to what we’re posting, the kind of narratives we put out, the kind of things we share. And in a way, it grew much larger than we anticipated or even intended. Which made it then more interesting to see how outsiders, who don’t know us, who don’t know who we are, or what we do, reacted to it.

Moshtari   And you know, Sinthujan was already making all of these stories that were really analytical and detailed, but it was difficult for outsiders to reference them outside of Instagram. And I think turning the analysis from Instagram stories into a talk and then exporting it into written conversation not only made it more accessible but also more credible. It’s actually interesting how we don’t say anything different to what we are saying on those platforms, but because it’s printed in a book, suddenly everyone is willing to participate in this conversation and take it a little bit more seriously. So there’s an interesting hierarchy of paper versus digital space. 

Sinthujan I think that’s one of the main problems that I encounter because I’ve actually put out a lot of original research and everything on Instagram, but it was never taken seriously because of the format. And then even in citing and in how it’s being reproduced, there were always issues. People were asking me, students were asking me, you know, how do I cite this? And I don’t know. There’s not a proper citing practice yet for that, not a standard made for it. And now to take it into a book, it’s kind of gotten back into a more bourgeois, established, respected format and already we are being approached quite differently, which is fascinating to us because we’re still the same people, we’re still saying the same things, but just because of how the information is being communicated and disseminated, it reshapes who it reaches, but also how it’s being received.



So the process of turning it into a book has allowed you to disrupt the discourse surrounding the topic in a different way, it’s not different to what you were saying on Instagram, but it’s able to operate in a different way.

Sinthujan Yes. And one of the questions that we asked ourselves in the process of producing the book was whether to alter things like our manner of speech, or our emotional reactions, or whether we exclude them and make it into a more traditional book. I think when you read the introduction and then compare it to the rest of the conversation, you see there’s a stylistic difference. And both of us were quite passionate about keeping the original as it is, while also extending it. Because it was a conversation that we had in the beginning of 2021, so we wanted to reflect that in the published format. We didn’t want it to be just an archival version of what we already did in the conversation. We wanted it to live and for it to be a living conversation. Therefore, when we extended it we thought it was critical to also include things that have changed, things that happened after that conversation as well, and show how even things that we were talking about in 2021 have altered because of the conversation that we’re having.



To go back to the process of the publishing: you’ve both published or have very nearly published books with Hanser Verlag. You could probably say it’s a more established publishing house than Wirklichkeit Books. How far was that indie aspect attractive in terms of publishing English in Berlin with them? It seems to us like that fits quite well with your intentions with the talk.

Sinthujan I mean, there’s a real point in who was interested in transcribing this and making it into a book, right? There wasn’t a mainstream publisher that approached us with this idea, and we didn’t even think about it before Jonas (ed: von Lenthe, publisher of Wirklichkeit Books) approached us. And we were thinking, do we want this? And we were both surprised by the interest. When we started working on the editing process I had just finished the very lengthy editing process of my main book. And then I had to go straight into this one. And I think it was quite a different process. I feel like working with an indie smaller publisher allowed us to be more creative, and for them also to be less static and conservative in how they imagined a book to look, which allowed us much more freedom and flexibility. But also in terms of dissemination, because my book and this one were released almost at the same time, it was interesting  to watch how that played out. Like how the distribution of it happens, you know, an indie publisher has quite different distribution networks, much more vulnerable and much more personal, much more small scale. But Wirklichkeit Books was actually so efficient in getting the book out and getting it into conversation. And I thought it was much, much less conservative in its approach compared to mainstream and traditional publishers in Germany. 



From our perspective as booksellers, we have a direct connection to Wirklichkeit Books. You know, when we want to order some books we’re talking directly to them, to the people at the publishing house. So there’s not these layers in between, and that often allows you to have a more immediate connection to the project, to what they’re doing. It allows you to feel a lot more collaborative as a bookstore, you’re not just buying something to sell, you’re also taking part in a project.

Sinthujan Hanser sends, you know, parcels with the books, whereas Jonas cycles to the bookstore and delivers it in person. And I feel like because it’s a Berlin based publishing house, it also responded much more to the need for the conversation that we’re having, which was very local. And therefore I feel like it was a much better fit. And to be honest, when you think about traditional mainstream publishers in Germany where everything is based on market values and sales – which of course everyone is dependent on – I feel like indie publishers have smaller numbers, smaller output, so smaller budgets and therefore the production itself is much more personal. And we were constantly in touch with the publisher. We still are. And it’s a very personal type of relationship, which I quite cherish. I think it also helps us to formulate our ideas more directly without them being kind of micromanaged by ten different people. And for Moshtari and I, both of our practices are much more niche, topic-wise. We bridge art, and academic research as well as more mainstream areas. And I feel like traditionally mainstream publishers have a very different kind of audience in mind. With Wirklichkeit books I think the stakes were quite different, and the audience that was imagined was already quite niche. And therefore I feel like it was a much easier production for us as well. 



You mentioned that in the process of editing the book, at some point, Jonas had to step in and say, okay, right, we need to end the conversation now. Where would you have taken the conversation, if you’d had another 100 pages or so?

Moshtari I think what we realized is that at some point we started to get really comparative. Sinthujan lived for a couple of years in London, I did for one year. So we started comparing situations in Berlin and London. Then it became really comparative. And I think we cut out this comparison, the move away from Berlin to actually look at other cities such as London and how it looks there, because what we are describing is not just specific to Berlin, right? If you look on a global scale, you will often see the kind of dynamics we have here in Berlin, where you have this international bubble that is just landing there, having all these resources, moving around in the city as if the locals are just, you know, a background, a backdrop. So I think if we had more space this comparative element would be in it, first of all, the comparison to other big cities in Europe, but also looking at the phenomena internationally in these cosmopolitan events and how they change certain cities. I think in the foreword we also had a reference to the Elite Capture discourse by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and a friend of Sinthujan who recently wrote her PhD on the historical category of the expat…

Sinthujan ……Sarah Kunz, yeah, the expatriate as a historical category. And it developed throughout colonialism and then in the period after. I think that’s one of the issues that we faced, that we were extending the conversation a little bit too far out of Berlin. And for this book to still be Berlin-centric, we had to cut down a bit. But I think one of the things that we of course would like to continue is to look at recent developments, because this is an ongoing evolution that we’re witnessing, and also to look into more niche groups as well. For instance, queer communities who are encountering similar spaces and issues. I think at some point we just had to end it for it to still be digestible, you know, and not to be too vast in its scope. 

Moshtari Also, we’re touching on so many different and very complex issues and I think the book is so easy to read because it tries to introduce you to many questions, but it doesn’t go too deep into them. And what we also experiment with now when we’re invited to talk about the book, is not to talk about the book, but to choose a specific issue, like the Ausländerbehörde, and then go a little bit deeper into that element and extend the conversation. Then we can not have exactly the same one that we had in the book, but instead have all these different routes we can take in the conversation.




You’ve just talked about how it was important to keep the scope of the book local, and part of that was critiquing cultural institutions like galleries and also bookshops, including DYRM, regarding the language that is being used to communicate. We ask ourselves as well, is it correct? As a bookshop in Berlin, in Germany to only have the English language as the language that we put out there? The idea of DYRM was originally to bring international publications to Berlin, to actually open up the conversation a little. And at some point we said, well, from a pragmatic, economical perspective, it’s just easier – which is a bad excuse – to only communicate in English, because doing it in both languages is a huge amount of work and time. The question is,  is it solved by switching back to German or being bilingual?

Moshtari  Working in the arts we often face a similar problem. The conversation is in English because so many terms are in English, and as soon as you have one international person in the crowd, you switch to English immediately. So it’s just more efficient, in a way. And what we realized is, especially in college courses, if you tend to only speak in English, it’s so difficult to translate what you’re actually talking about into German. You don’t even have the words for it. So you’re not only lost in translation, but actually if you’re not having the conversations in Germany and in German, you’re not considering the local context. If you don’t have a German word for it, it’s not really in the minds of the people in Germany. So I think the matter of translation is not only a pragmatic choice, but actually an epistemic and intellectual choice as well. If we don’t have conversations in these languages, we are not really thinking about these realities and contexts. There is epistemic loss happening if we are not able to translate from English into our own languages, whatever language that may be, and we are also losing many people who could be included in progressive conversations if we’re not only having them in English. But also I think there are different responsibilities when it comes to translation. Obviously, something that is funded by tax money has a different responsibility towards the local context compared to private businesses. 

English is often inclusive and it is a smart choice. But if we stop thinking beyond a pragmatic choice for the moment, I think what we are saying is not that it doesn’t make sense, but that it is lazy. It is a pragmatic, lazy choice. Why is it so easy for everyone to switch into English, to accommodate English, to be so welcoming to the English language? But we don’t even try to have the same flexibility with different languages. Sometimes you see certain other languages that are linked to a profitable economy being catered to. Arabic tourists, Chinese tourists. But it’s an economic choice. It’s not so much a choice that is trying to create community, but just selling and being efficient and all these things.

I think in the end, if the practice changed, we would also have different relationships. For example, in the arts, there’s never enough money for an additional language. Like often there’s not a budget for, I don’t know, like a Turkish or Farsi translation. And even though the exhibition might even cater towards the interest of this community, there’s often not even money for it. So I think making this into a problem might also solve structural, financial issues.

Sinthujan I think it’s a genuine problem that we face, that so many different cultural products and fields of cultural production, including academia, where a lot of publishing happens, are forced to be in English, and that unless something is made in English, it won’t be recognised. It won’t have that global reach as well as relevance. And I understand that there is an economic disadvantage of having to put so many resources into translations, into keeping things bilingual. But I think at the end of the day, businesses also have to consider the fact that the majority of people do not necessarily feel comfortable, even if they speak a certain amount of English. They might not necessarily have the vocabulary for certain types of things.

And you see it not just in bookstores, but in Berlin specifically also in restaurants and cafes a lot. I feel like there’s a scene in Berlin and specifically in Mitte where there is just a naturalization of English. It’s the language of Mitte, almost. And I feel like a lot of establishments, whether bookstores, art galleries or restaurants and cafes, all tend to fall into the same trap. And I feel like as long as you don’t make it into an issue, people won’t consider it as an issue. And as Moshtari was saying, it’s all based on economics, you know, who brings in money. And most of the time these adjustments and changes will only be made if there’s an economic calculus behind it, like how bilingualism was suddenly cherished by Germans after decades because they suddenly realized, oh, there’s a need for Germany to be international, economically international, and therefore for people who speak different languages to be included in order to make business in Turkey or in China or in Saudi.



Then you have this problem where everything “international” is automatically English. It’s not that we actually decide or want to have that focus on the English language in our store. In publications like Flaneur, for example, they really try to go out to other cities and to bring them into discussion. But they have to go to the English language to do it. You said as well, the discussion in the arts is mostly in English…

Moshtari I think in the end English is a really pragmatic choice when you want to be international because it just includes so many more people. And sometimes people also think being internationalist is super progressive. But in a local context, English is also a class issue. In Germany most people speak German. People who were raised in Germany, and who were forced to integrate into the language, understand complex issues and discussions in German, but not always in English. So whenever we switch to English, we immediately disinvite so many people. When we had the talk on the Ausländerbehörde, many people were like, why didn’t you do it in English? So maybe expats would have been interested in it. But I think because we did it in German, so many people came who were not expats but actual children of refugees, who were forced to learn German, who understood this conversation from a different point of view. And I think switching up the language and also maybe making more languages available, it really curates the audience. So it’s not just a pragmatic decision, but actually one that will change perceptions, reception. The content even, I think.

Sinthujan I feel like there’s this assumption that German is provincial in Berlin, in some areas of Berlin. So a lot of institutions de-provincialise themselves by switching into English, and making themselves more globally relevant, while being locally irrelevant. And I think it’s a cop out, but it’s a shortcut that a lot of institutions use in order to maybe posture as if they’re having progressive and locally and communally relevant discussions. While actually excluding, actively excluding the majority of the people who live here. The state and the city are also interested in being globally relevant. So therefore English is being offered, in the Ausländeramt and other places, much more than it used to be. While other languages are completely isolated.

Moshtari The argument we’re making is that English is not a shortcut for inclusivity. That’s just not real. And we should just get rid of this idea and understand that English is a language of profit. It might be pragmatic but it’s the language of profit, and we are immediately curating the people we have access to the moment we only speak English. Or, the moment we only speak German. It’s not inclusivity, it’s not. 

Sinthujan And I think what we tried in this book was to actually have a very local discussion in the local language, and to keep it critical and relevant and then to force people to actually engage with it despite the fact that it doesn’t have this claim to be relevant for necessarily all places. And I think the curatorial choice to also include English was a very practical one, because we thought it’s important and critical for people who are invested and participating in this environment, who don’t speak German, to also be able to engage in this discussion. But of course, if we would have had the options, we would have loved to also include other languages in the translation. But that’s a question of budget. And then it’s an issue of practicality. And I think when we were saying that we had to cut down the conversation that we were having about other cities, this was also our tendency to de-provincialise our own conversation. But I think it is still important to have these seemingly isolated discussions, using very local references because the fact is that what’s locally relevant is also globally relevant. 



Do you see any kind of movement in a more inclusive direction, linguistically speaking, here in Berlin?

Sinthujan I do think that the dominant trend is still English. And the critique that we’re making might be heard by many people and read by many people now. But it needs, I think, much more popular support and much more collective organizing, as well as different strategies of implementing language policies that are more inclusive. And I’m not seeing enough of that. I think we may have contributed an impulse, with this critique that is now practically assembled in a book that you can take with you, that you can share and read and think about. But the implementation is something that I think we still have to see, specifically in the more elite arts and culture kind of spaces.

Moshtari You know, there’s not one big solution for the whole of Berlin. But it’s more about certain spaces, certain institutions, to cater towards their local demographics depending on who is living there, just looking around the area…It’s not one solution for all, I think, but one approach could be to just create more nuance and to really care, care about the people that live here.



Sinthujan and Moshtari, thank you so much for the talk!




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