Maker, Makerspace: To Translate Or Not to Translate?

The potentials of maker education are increasingly attracting many formal and informal educational institutions in Canada. When I walk around the most innovative schools, libraries and community centers who have a makerspace, I can almost hear the lyrics “Everybody [makes] now” with the rhythm of C+C Music Factory in the background. Yet, the American dominated terminology we use to describe it is not quite ripe in French. Let’s have a look at its complexity.

Chalet Kent makerspace in Côte-des-Neiges Montreal. Credit www.educationmakers.ca

The term maker movement was coined by Dale Dougherty, founder and CEO of Maker Media, with a specific corporate ideology in mind. One of its components is to feed off the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement of affordable electronics by selling it to a wider population. The other is to surf on the wave of desire for experiential learning to incorporate maker education in the educational system.

The maker movement does have its merits in education. Through maker-led activities, students develop STEM or STEAM interest. It cultivates curiosity, encourages creativity and sustainability by repurposing objects. Students develop both digital skills, by learning to code and design, and practical skills by repairing and assembling objects with manual or power tools. It helps form identity, increases motivation and engagement, gives opportunities to develop a business mindset, and help startups be more relevant and successful. It builds community.

Maker-led activities have endless possibilities.

No wonder many people are rushing to build makerspaces in their communities, libraries, schools, colleges or universities.

Makers of all types are emerging in all four corners of the world. Makerspaces, hackerspaces, fablabs, techshops are appearing in all continents.

The movement is global and yet translating the term in French is revealing many problems.

Of course, some countries are less sensitive and are ok to go with the English terms –maker, makerspace, maker culture, maker education, maker movement. However, in the case of Québec, French is the official language. To keep the quality and livelihood of the French language “La Charte de la Langue Française”, a.k.a. Bill 101, ensures that French language rights are respected in public services. I will save you the complexity of this law and the criticisms and the disputes it caused. All I want to point out in this article is that in French education institutions English terms must be translated in French.

This is easier said than done.

Let me start by saying that this piece is not to be interpreted as a criticism of French people’s love of their language and culture. I am “franco-ontarienne pure laine”. My roots and my identity are francophone, even though I have a Scottish name.

However, thus far, any effort I have seen to translate the terms Maker, Makerspace, Maker Culture, Maker Education, Maker Movement reduces the concept of making to only one of its dimensions.

Makerspaces and makers

The “Office québécois de la langue française” is clear on it. In a page updated in 2018, they clearly advise against using the word makerspace because it is not consistent with the “norme sociolinguistique du français au Québec”. They suggest not using the term Fab Lab because it is a trademark (marque de commerce). Indeed, the word Fab Lab stems from the work of Neil Gershenfeld who is the director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the MIT. He created a course titled “How to make almost anything”. For that purpose, Gershenfeld equipped spaces to make just about anything which became the first Fab Lab. For any space that adheres to the Fab Charter, the “Office québécois de la langue française” suggests using the terms “atelier de fabrication collaboratif”, “espace de fabrication collaboratif” or “atelier collaboratif”. Their definition “atelier de fabrication ouvert à tous, soumis à une charte d’utilisation, où les utilisateurs partagent savoirs, compétences et outils nécessaires à la conception et à la réalisation de leurs projets techniques ou artistiques” is consistent with the definition of a Fab Lab.

It gets more complicated when translating the term for makerspaces that are not adhering to the Fab Charter. These makerspaces are called “laboratoire numérique ouvert”. To add complexity, there are some disagreements between the definition of makerspaces (spaces where making happens) and Fab Labs (sometimes interpreted as spaces with specific equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters, CNCs, woodworking tools, metal work tools, hand tools, computers, microcontrollers, sensors, etc).

For spaces that are not so keen on the digital technology equipment, we also see“laboratoire ouvert” (drop the digital) or simply “atelier de création”. With these terms, however, we lose the very nature of making, which involves both low-fi and digital technologies with a variety of materials, selected by a community that decides which tools are needed and how to conduct the activities. However, the spirit of hacking, tinkering and innovation of the maker movement seems to be slightly lacking in these translations.

Makery (2018) also includes other variations of the terminology such as “laboratoire d’innovation ouverte” or “atelier collaboratif” where the spirit of making and sharing organized around the ethos of collaboration and sharing exists. Truth be told, they remain variations because spaces vary and people vary, but “laboratoire ouvert/ open laboratory” and “atelier de création/ creation workshop” do not seem to be synonyms of makerspace, although they can be makerspaces. Perhaps, we need to make it more specific and add the word digital and collaborative.

Even if not all makerspaces revolve around digital technologies, over 90% of them have disruptive technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters. A majority of makers enjoy the freedom of playing with open source software and hardware and most people in 3D printing would not survive without open source STL files. And not all makerspaces need to be collaborative, though it is difficult to think of maker culture without thinking of collaboration.

As for the term maker, the “Office québécois de la langue française” suggests using “fabriquant”. The last update on that page was in 2006, before the rise of the maker movement. I do know people who identify as “fabriquants” and when they see me assemble kits, however complex they are, they still say I assemble kits and I do not fabricate as they see it. For example, the “fabriquants” take metal and form it to make something else, they give it structure, they play with its affordances, they hone the material, they polish it. When looking at the amounts of kit makers consume, I think it safe to say they are not “fabriquants”.

For an op-ed I wrote about expressions of joy in makerspaces, I talked about the maker scream that is almost like magic when makers finally get their prototypes to work. When I received the French translation, the title became “Le cri du bricoleur”. The term “bricoleur” in French means many things. When children glue pieces of paper together, we refer to this as “bricolage”. The homeowners who walk in hardware stores with no expertise, but want to engage in DIY to do a project, are called “bricoleurs”. Of course, there is some merit to being a bricoleur, but we cannot say that bricolage is the equivalent to what makers do. Making has more complexities, more dimensions.

In my research ethics form, a digital fabrication became “une oeuvre d’art”. Oh jeez! Are all artists makers? Are all makers artists? Are these synonymic values? Most of the digital fabrications that are created in my lab are prototypes in alpha or beta version. Even though there are some with artistic attributes, it would be difficult to give them the status of an artwork. Though in some cases, they can be artworks made by artists, the term maker is not a synonym of artist.

Other common French translations of the word maker are “un inventeur”, “un fabriquant”, “un créateur”, “un artisan”, “un innovateur”. None of these terms encompass the spirit of the maker movement, which is defined not just by its technologies (often open-source or digital technologies), but also by the ethos of sharing and resourcefulness of the local (physical) and global (online) community of makers.

The French word that is equivalent to maker is “faiseur”. Why hasn’t anybody thought of that before? Very simply because while the broad term maker fits the bill in English, the word “faiseur” in French is often used in a humorous or pejorative manner. The “faiseurs” are often people who are mediocre at what they do.

When there is no proper way to translate a word, perhaps the best thing is to continue using the original anglophone terminology. Or perhaps the issue is that the original terminology is wrong. Rather than calling it the maker movement, we should call it the do-it-yourself experiential learning or DIYEL movement.