Rass, Christoph (2023): ‘Gastarbeiter’ – ‘Guest Worker’. Translating a Keyword in Migration Politics. IMIS Working Paper 17, Institut für Migrationsforschung und Interkulturelle Studien (IMIS) der Universität Osnabrück. Osnabrück: IMIS.
The German expression ‘Gastarbeiter’ is currently a loanword, transliteration, or claque in about 30 languages. Historically, it refers to migrants who moved through state-run recruitment systems designed to organize a temporary labor transfer between nation-states.
Besides its significance as a process-generated category of past migration regimes and discourses, the concept has morphed into a ubiquitous descriptive and analytical term, frequently used in academic text, policy-making, and the media. It is employed to classify migrants that seemingly fit the temporary labor migration-model far beyond the recruitment systems of the Trentes Glorieuses. ‘Guest worker system’ describes a whole class of migration policies – past, present and future.
Rarely, however, is much attention or consideration given to the complex, troubling layers of meaning inscribed into this word throughout its journey of more than a hundred years. Meanings that allow the term to deliver its core function: the production of social order.
Instead, it often seems to possess a romantic air or the pseudo-neutrality of a seemingly objective technical term. As a contribution to the reflexive turn in migration studies, this paper leverages conceptual history to explore the production, re-production, and co-production of what ‘Gastarbeiter’ or ‘guest worker’ means, and how these meanings were translated between languages and discourses, across time and space.
To this end, we look at the history of the term ‘Gastarbeiter’ since it was coined by Max Weber at the end of the First World War in Germany and then focus on its transfer into American English as ‘guest worker’ from the 1960s to the 1980s.
This translation did not only matter for the re-negotiation of migration between the United States and Mexico during that time. It turned a German word into a global concept that fundamentally changed the production of what migration means to societies.
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