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'Newspeaking' to deaf ears

Lezak Shallat

The language of euphemism and the inversion of customary meanings is alive and well in Chile, 25 years after Nineteen Eight-Four first appeared there in Spanish.

One evening in 1983, when Chile was under military rule, three young journalists discovered that all their peers had read the same ubiquitous edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist parable (thanks, probably, to US State Department largess). But none had ever heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A search of the city’s bookstores and libraries turned up a single copy – an expurgated translation from Franco’s Spain, shorn of the appendix that coined Newspeak as a language designed to ‘make all other modes of thought impossible’.

The trio, buoyed by visions of outwitting the censors with their own samizdat manuscript, started translating. Their task: to retell Orwell’s premonitory tale in the vocabulary of Chile’s daily terrors.

Night after night, they worked beyond curfew, the staccato of the manual typewriter absorbed into the din of cacerolazos (banging on pots and pans), blasts from water canons and gunshots on the streets.

These protests led to the relaxation of certain censorship bans. The translation saw the light of day as a flimsy paperback with the cryptic title spray-painted on its cover. Booksellers braved confiscation to sell it. The year was 1984, and Orwell’s eponymous novel was finally available to a generation of Chileans already schooled in its significance.

Newspeak Redux

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and almost two decades since the end of military rule here. But Orwellian manipulation of language did not disappear with the dictatorship. Rather, it has been extended and deepened during Chile’s ‘transition’ to democracy, evolving to reflect – and shape – the times.

The masterminds of this lexical makeover are not the political tyrants of yesteryear. They are the architects of Chile’s economic orthodoxy. Newspeak is the lingua franca of their neoliberal mindset. Its aim, like its Orwellian prototype, is to make alternative modes of thought unimaginable.

Terms like ‘class struggle’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘equality’ have been erased from the political lexicon. Take the disappearance of el pueblo (the people) – a rallying cry that has fuelled Latin American revolutionary dreams and leftist culture for generations. Pueblo has been replaced by gente, or ‘folks’ – a term with genteel connotations that also works well as the name of a glossy high-society magazine. 

Newspeak is the _lingua franca_ of the neoliberal mindset. Its aim, like its Orwellian prototype, is to make alternative modes of thought unimaginable

The obvious rationale for this substitution is to dissipate the ideological echoes of pueblo. But a closer look uncovers a more Orwellian Newspeak dimension. Pueblo, like people, comes from the Latin populus, the citizens who possess civic-political responsibilities and rights as members of an organized community. Gente comes from genus, for family or tribe. If gente expels pueblo from political discourse, the possibility of debate concerning people’s rights will also be silenced.

Lingua comoediae chilensis (‘the Chilean language farce’) is the name that author Luis Casado gives to this new political idiom1. It is a language intended to hide, not describe, the real world, and replace reality with the vocabulary of ideological expediency.

As salaried jobs get axed, legions of domestic servants, field hands, street hawkers and other labourers are transformed into self-employed ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ whose health and pensions benefits come out of their own pockets. In the vocabulary of neolengua (Newspeak), when an entrepreneur builds a clinic, it is hailed as an ‘investment’. But when the Government builds a hospital, it is regarded as ‘social expenditure’, tinged in red ink on the wrong side of the accounting ledger.

Thus, Chile’s much-touted economic ‘miracle’ has slashed the numbers of the country’s poor by redefining the way that poverty is measured. It is recast as a ‘situation of social risk’ and the poor are subsumed into ‘socioeconomic groups’, classified by purchasing power and access to loans. In this economy, no-one is too poor to consume on credit. To paraphrase Big Brother, Indebtedness is Democracy.

Deaf ears

On 13 December, Chileans go to the polls to elect a new President. The front-running candidates are Eduardo Frei Jr, former President and son of a President, bearing the standard of the ruling centre-left Concertación coalition; Sebastián Piñera, billionaire owner of the national airline and a TV station, making a second Presidential bid from the centre-right Alianza; and Socialist Party breakaway Marco Enriquez-Ominami, son of a slain revolutionary hero, running as an independent. Should no candidate receive an absolute majority (the most likely scenario), a run-off election will be held in mid-January. The successor to current President Michelle Bachelet will take office in March 2010.

The youth vote could easily determine the election outcome. But only one out of five Chileans between the ages of 18 and 29 is registered to vote, and some 2.3 million under-30s will stay away from the polls. 

The reason: ‘No estoy ni allí’ (‘I couldn’t care less’). This is not another euphemism but the plainspoken answer that most young people give for turning their backs on political parties and refusing to vote. The current political parlance of image over reality doesn’t speak to them.

Nor does it speak to millions of other Chileans squeezed out by the language of economic orthodoxy and then erased by its circumlocutions. Another language is needed to reach the pueblo that those in power have ceased to name. Newspeak retains its hold as the language of power, but increasingly, fewer are willing to listen. Big Brother may not get the final word, after all.

Lezak Shallat and two friends translated Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into Spanish for publication in Chile in 1984. She still lives there, working as a freelance translator and writer.

  • Lingua Comoediae Chilensis, Editorial el afilador, March 2009, Paris, France.
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