Whispering/Translating during DH2014: Five Things We Learned

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Lausanne Switzerland for DH2014 where I helped organize and run the GO::DH/MLMC “I whisper___” pins initiative. The idea behind was simple and informal: Those attendants who were willing to help out translating to/from any language being used at the conference could ask me or Alex Gil for a pin, write down the languages they could help out in, and then wear it for the rest of the conference ready to use their linguistic skills as needed. The whispering idea had its roots in other GO::DH members’ experience in Cuba, in which a person would literally whisper/interpret the talk being given to those who couldn’t follow it. But this is the first time (to our knowledge) that anything like this has been done at DH so it was all about experimenting and coming up with how it could be implemented, how attendants were going to respond to it, how much it was going to be put into practice, and bunch of other questions. So for about a day and half we gave away close to a hundred pins and heard what people said when they approached us. My analytic side wishes we had recorded what languages were being written down in them to get a better idea of the linguistic communities that seem to be craving this kind of exercise more. We didn’t, but I remember seeing Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, English, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and surely others. First thing we learned: there are considerably more languages moving around the conference than ADHO’s official languages.

Second thing we learned: we didn’t know what to do about English: take it as the starting point language or as another of the languages present in the conference. As we were giving out pins, some were unsure whether to write “English” down or not. I hope I’m not reading too much into this, but it seemed that not writing it was an indication that we were taking for granted that we can all communicate in English and that it’s all the other languages that needed bridging to/from English. I have the wonderful Glen Worthey to thank for pointing out that we should write down English too as another language of the conference. That way English speakers could ask for translation during presentations in another language, even when as we know there weren’t many of them, it was a possibility. That also meant that, for instance, a French speaker could come to a Spanish language presentation and someone could help interpreting between these two languages without necessarily using English as a meeting point, even though it might be so for many. Some participants acknowledged that even though they could translate, for example, between Dutch and English, it wouldn’t be needed. Perhaps, it really wasn’t, still, we encouraged them to take a pin and make it patent, just in case.So when anybody asked “should I write English as well?” we said yes.photo1(3)The initiative was warmly welcomed and turned out to be quite loud for a whisper. On Twitter and in person we kept hearing what a great idea it was, and how excited people were about putting on the pins. On the second day of the conference, Aurélien Berra sent out an “emergency request” for whisperers when much of the audience left the room right before the beginning of a talk in French. Similarly, Sarah Potvin asked us to whisper in the bilingual session she was chairing on Thursday. It was precisely at this session where Nuria Rodríguez Ortega was giving a short paper in Spanish that the potential of the initiative came into view, not just translation wise, but also as a community exercise. Initially, we imagined we would actually be able to whisper, but time was scarce, the audience was big, and the room was large, so actual whispering wasn’t going to do it. We asked everyone how they’d like to do it and Lisa Spiro suggested we whispered through live-tweeting. So we live-tweeted in English as much and as clearly as we could from Nuria’s talk (apologies for the most typos I’ve ever done in 10 minutes). Still with the feeling that there should have been a simpler way, after the session ended, someone suggested using a Google Doc in the future so we didn’t have the 140 character constraint and so that it was easier for the attendants to follow just the talk instead of filtering out from among all the other conference tweets. By the final day of the conference, calls for whisperers were coming from different sessions. Third thing we learned: people are ready for these initiatives, they’re willing to take part in them, they want to pitch in and deal with the messiness they entail, and there are lots of good ideas we hadn’t even imagined that we’re looking forward to incorporate.

Throughout the days of the conference, it was very exciting to see that it was, indeed a lot of people who were wearing their pins with two, three, four and yes, even five languages written down in them! Yes, at coffee breaks and sessions we were all mostly communicating in English, but––maybe this was the real whisper, the one we all needed to hear––in each pin there was a visible, tangible presence of all the other languages, a reminder that there is always a language (or many) that we need help in. Fourth thing we learned: If nothing else, the “I whisper___” pins helped us realize (really become aware) just how multilingual DH really is, and wonder how much more it can become.

photo(1)Even though I’m biased, overall, my impression is that the initiative was successful. That said, it also raised a lot of questions and it wasn’t put into practice as much as it could have been. By the end of the conference, most dhwhisperers didn’t do any whispering, partly perhaps because we were all just trying it out, seeing what would happen, taking part and observing at the same time. However, I wonder how many of us presented in English when we could’ve presented in any of ADHO’s official languages for reasons like those mentioned by Martin Grandjean or others. I wonder too how many of us would consider switching to another language now that we know there is someone to help translate for others, if we knew our language choice would not interfere with the audience’s interest in our work, or if the hype of being subject to whispering increased our work’s visibility. Is this something that can impact the submission and reviewing process in the future? All the unanswered questions, I believe, highlight the significance of the initiative as well as the aspects we have to work on further. Fifth thing we learned: if an experimental initiative that was in the making for only two weeks had such a positive impact, we can only imagine it would really flourish in the future if we sustain it and improve it.

Needless to say there is still a lot to do: better coordination with program committees, session chairs, presenters, and audiences would surely help getting a better grasp of what languages will have a stronger presence, what kind of translation (whispering, live-tweeting, Google Doc) might work, when, and where. Still, even though a part of me wants to make this a more organized and structured initiative so that it works better in the future––if we’re lucky enough to continue it––I hope to keep much of its spontaneity so that it is still an invitation to play, so that it seems fun (it was!), so that it brings people together, and so that many more ideas pop up because there is no script, this is after all a really long conversation.

Acknowledgements: The whole GO::DH mailing list and Executive Committee and especially Dan O’Donnell for providing the funding for the pins. Everyone who picked up a pin, wore it, tweeted about the initiative, translated, requested translation, etc. Elizabeth Burr and everyone at ADHO’s Multilingualism/Multiculturalism Committee for endorsing the initiative and spreading the word about it. Neil Fraistat, ADHO’s chair until then, for supporting the initiative from the beginning and giving us a kind shout out during his opening address. The local organizers, and the program committee, particularly Kevin Baumer and Melissa Terras, for facilitating our presence around the registration table. And a very special thank you to Bethany Nowviskie for generously mentioning us in her enlightening keynote paper.

Local and International Scalability in DH

In my last post I wrote about the unconference session on Multilingualism in DH that took place during DHSI. This week Martin Grandjean published some really interesting, though as he calls them “unhappy”, results regarding rates of acceptance according to language in DH2014. His findings show that even though the call for papers for DH2014 was published in 23 languages, submissions were done in only 6 languages other than English. Even more shocking is that acceptance rate was about 50% lower for non-English language proposals than it was for English language ones.

The questions related to this that I launched after the unconference session were whether exchanges among different linguistic DH communities are taking place? And whether we are speaking distinct DH dialects depending on audience and sources? Grandjean’s conclusions, meant to be provocative, touch some of the issues I intuited before and I’d like to comment on them. One of his conclusions reads:

5. Ce n’est pas un problème de langue, mais de réseau de cooptation.

Dans certains colloques, il apparaît de manière évidente que le choix des keynote speakers et d’une partie des panelistes découle plus du réseau personnel des membres du comité que de choix scientifiques. En l’occurrence, la composition très anglophone du comité expliquerait pourquoi les chercheurs retenus le sont aussi en grande partie, puisque faisant partie d’un cercle plus ou moins large autour des décideurs.

DH2014, as the biggest and most important international conference in the field, carries a larger responsibility to be inclusive of practitioners around the world; while smaller, local or linguistically focused ones, though open to other communities, usually concentrate on promoting the field in their language and their context. Two very different objectives to have in a conference. Still, it would seem that the pattern is not exclusive to DH2014. Multilingual representation in the recent 2EHD in Mexico City, as can be seen in the chart below, is not that different to Grandjean’s results. Idiomas1y2EncuentrosEven when the call for papers was available in 6 languages and GO::DH contributed to the organization, only 16% of the presentation were done in a language other than Spanish—up from only 4% in the first EHD [1]. Furthermore, only English and Portuguese were represented. This parallelism suggests precisely that though efforts are made to attract a stronger multilingual presence to DH conferences in widely distinct contexts and scales, it hardly happens; at least not to the extent that one would wish. Happily, from the 2EHD data, it also appears to be increasing. We could then actually say that different conversations around the global DH’s don’t cross, but do touch briefly at times.

This leads me to the second issue. For Grandjean:

6. Quand on est bon, on choisit l’anglais.

Si le chercheur sait ou croit savoir que sa communication est de bonne qualité, il pourrait souhaiter la rendre accessible au plus grand nombre, raison pour laquelle les papiers soumis en anglais (par des non-anglophones) seraient en moyenne de meilleure tenue que les autres. Par ailleurs, le fait d’être capable de communiquer en anglais est, pour un chercheur non-anglophone, un indicateur de ses compétences et de son “internationalisme”.

This is partly what I referred to when I talked about audiences and sources. What I think the similarity in results suggests is that we definitely have different conversations in distinct DH contexts, and that language choice is dependent on that. At least from the surface it seems like a good thing, that the field can be scalable in that way: projects have a certain relevance in a given context and a different kind of relevance in another. I’m going to venture and say it is pretty safe to assume that DH2014 presentations in English by non-native speakers have been (or will be) presented in their original language in other local conferences.

The implication of this is that in its original language a particular project or research has its outlets. In that sense, yes, the purpose of taking projects to DH2014 is to internationalize them, to let others outside of their particular local contexts know about them. Indeed, this is proof that most of us have adopted English as the lingua franca in DH, but it seems to me that it can also be suggestive of how language specific conversations are taking place elsewhere. Ultimately, it is indicative of the importance of local conferences to foster certain conversations, and the relevance of international ones to promote other ones.

This still poses another problem, is the audience attending these “translated” presentations diverse or are they the same who have listened to/read them in “the original”? If non-English speakers are putting the effort to internationalize their work, it is because they (we) care about having a diverse audience and different conversations about their projects, much more than having the call for papers available in tens of languages (which, though immensely valuable, should not be an end in itself). Again, the unresolved issue is the matter of sources, conversation exchanges, and scholarship diversity.

Great efforts put towards multilingualism in DH, like the GO::DH “I whisper_______” pins coming to DH2014 are aimed at inviting everybody to come and speak in their own language at international conferences, and foster collegiality and helpfulness among colleagues. There is, still another way of contributing to this, going and listening to the diverse, though small, non-English presentations (there will be someone who can whisper in English too, I’m sure) and generate exchanges and conversations. In my opinion it will be this kind of scalability of the field in different contexts, that will help remedy the “unhappy” results found by Grandjean regarding acceptance rates and multilingual representativity.

[1] More 2EHD metrics are coming soon at the RedHD blog.

Multilingualism in DH. Notes from the DHSI2014 Unconference Session

A few days ago during DHSI2014 I organized an unconference session to discuss matters relating to multilingualism in DH. If you’ve been following my work in the last few months, the issue of knitting an exchange network of DH scholarship in various languages has been on my mind. The most important initiative I’d led until now was during DayofDH 2014 #trDH (short for translate DH) which gathered the efforts of about a dozen of colleagues from Mexico, Spain, USA, and Italy to translate important, foundational (some of them definitional) texts written originally in Spanish. At the time most of the translations were done into English, with a few exceptions. Pressing questions emerging out of #trDH were whether translations into English really ensured a wider audience for these texts, whether it was a concession to a field widely dominated by the English language, and perhaps more significant whether it would reach colleagues who–like many of the #trDH participants–speak English as a second language. Simply put, whether #trDH was promoting a more global scholarship in the long term or not.

It was with those questions in mind that I proposed the DHSI unconference session. I was hoping to get input from colleagues in other DH linguistic communities, as I sometimes am heavily biased to the Spanish speaking one. As a launching pad I proposed two broad lines of discussion: 1) Issues of standards and tools that require various kinds of (cultural & linguistic) translation/adaptation: TEI, RDF, etc. and 2) Issues of networking and facilitating exchanges with scholarship produced in many different languages mainly through translation.

Although the majority of the 50 minutes were spent on the second issue, we all agreed that  work arounds were possible with tools and standards as well as highly productive, even when constraints and limitations are frequently faced. However, the prospect of translating those seemed hugely daunting if not outright unrealistic. The key then, one of the participants added, was using them reflectively and critically in order to incorporate diverse ways of knowledge construction, a win-win in practice and theory. Similarly, someone else asked to be reflective of the kinds of collaborations (international, perhaps) that ensure that standards are adaptable (and fruitfully adapted), compatible, and, ultimately, enriched from their various uses. This certainly requires its own unconference session and more, so I will leave it there.

In matters of translation, some of the biggest concerns we all shared were whether language choice was determined by who our intended audience is, and the dangers of fragmented conversations because of this. In other words, do we speak distinct DH “dialects” depending on audience? Depending on our sources? Are we having different conversations that don’t necessarily cross in different DH communities because of this? It would seem so. Then, assuming that translation can be a way to remedy this and really has the potential to open up channels of communication around distinct linguistic DH communities, the issue that must be tackled is viability and sustainability considering how hard and resource expensive translation is.

Some of us acknowledged a position of “language mediator”–a personal concern of mine– and what it means to translate not just in terms of language, but especially and, in my opinion, dangerously, in terms of context and what one can be exposed to depending on where we’re based, who we meet, who we read, etc. in contrast to others. Another issue with this position, we discussed, is the individual dimension these endeavors usually take, and thus their instability and difficulty to become more institutionalized and active practices in our organizations. Steering away from the individual figure, we moved onto the community’s responsibility/commitment to do it. On the one hand, it seems like a great idea to make the translation of DH texts in various languages a community endeavor. Good examples of this are again #trDH, and the GO::DH essay contest. Similarly, as Alex Gil mentioned, also at DHSI2014, at GO::DH “we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on the community itself.” These practices really become a community building exercise and show the priceless willingness and availability of many. Nevertheless, I worry this kind of practice might continue to reinforce networks already in place, instead of reaching out to those outside of them. A token of this is how today, Kevin Baumer on behalf of the DH2014 organizing committee reported vía email that there will be about 600 participants in the conference, while a couple of weeks ago the GO::DH list stood at 250 (I’m sure that’s grown since June 6th). In other words, not everybody is/can/must be invested in this.

Reflecting on the hard work translation means and how impossible it sometimes seems to be able to translate our work and others’, the discussion moved on to the work of professional translators, taking the matter away from the academic community itself. Though lots of academics do translate occasionally, this goes without saying, for most of us, translation is not our primary activity. In that sense, we should be fair to the people whose work is to translate and make a living out of it and perhaps adopt a really institutional practice to translation in a model akin to EU, UN, etc. in order, as Alex also put it to “place the burden on the hegemon.” Of course, the issue then would be to hire translators and raise the funds to pay them fairly–which would also need to happen from the top down whether within our organizations or our journals, as we couldn’t expect translation expenses to be footed by authors.

In conclusion, two understatements that must be kept in mind: 1) There are still more questions hanging in the air than (even provisional) answers. We have work to do here. 2) The issue of fostering a multilingual global Digital Humanities community is no easy task. Again: We have work to do here.

But also: through discussions such as this, it is increasingly becoming more evident that, first of all and as it should be expected, particular expertises are needed. Likewise, on top of community endeavors and willingness, we should be moving towards a more systematic approach in order to learn about the broader field and expand among other things, one of the pillars of scholarship: our set of sources, references and bibliographies.

Here, there, and everywhere

I’m sitting on the plane that will take me to London ON after the craziest three weeks of academic traveling galore. I owe many thanks to my postdoctoral supervisor Prof. JL Suárez for the support granted, which has allowed me to travel well beyond my means, and also to all the event organizers who have facilitated funding, scholarships, and registration waivers to young career scholars like myself. Everything that went on and the very existence of this post owe to all of your help.

Long story short. Chapter 1: London, ON – Mexico City – St. Catharines – Victoria – London ON (There might have been a day or two I actually spent home in London ON in between the three destinations but have now forgotten about them).

Long story short. Chapter 2: Everything DH, all kinds of presentations, several languages, many different people and takes on the field.

What I’m trying to say is that I pretty much spent three weeks thinking exclusively about DH (HD while I was in Mexico) to the point where I wouldn’t even notice there was no room in my head for anything else. For three weeks, the world revolved around DH. Yeah, it might have been a bit obsessive, perhaps, but it also led to three reflections that have very much cleared up how I see DH at the present and how I envisioned it.

1) Reflection having to do with people travelling along with me to the same places ––– To my knowledge, only Jade McDougall did the exact same itinerary as myself, but countless others did two of them, whether 2EHD and DHSI, or CSDH and DHSI. It was a pleasure seeing distinct facets of each one of many colleagues depending on which event we were together, what each one was presenting/talking about. And I feel like I know more of them all and their broader interests than I would had I only attended one of their talks or seen them once. Moving along at least two of the events with the same colleagues is becoming key for the kind of exchanges I envision DH to facilitate at large: local but not localized scholarship i.e. studies that are heavily grounded in the context that brings them to life, but which are in no way relevant exclusively in said context. Studies and people that find a place here and there all the same, that engage with who they’re talking to in each particular context without losing sight of their base. I would like to come back to Jade’s wonderful work on ephemeral objects of punk culture in Saskatchewan as a token of this and which fascinated everyone from Mexico City to St. Catharines, to Victoria, and everyone I managed to tell to.

2) Reflection on the “long term effects” of DH events ––– Happily, I’m coming back home with new projects collaborating with people I’ve only worked marginally with up to now (I’m looking at you Alex), and a couple of other ideas that might become projects at some point. If we want to and are willing to open ourselves up, take chances on people we’ve just met, there is a real potential for conferences and other meetings to promote strong academic relations and the birth of new projects fostering (this is going to sound cheesy) the future of the field. I think I can say I’ve begun to envision my DH ‘generation’—not really age or career stage wise—but colleagues so good at their work and so warm that I hope I’ll continue to work with them for the rest of my career. Did you see Emily Murphy‘s deep reflections on our collaborative DH culture and Jeri Weiringa‘s work on Rails Girls? UNAM’s Seminar on the Philosophy of Technology (#SeminarioTF) work on reading? James O’Sullivan‘s stylometrics and e-lit work? Not to mention my dear friends of the Humanities Matter bus? And so many others I might not even be aware of just yet or might (shamefully) be forgetting due to my inability to deal with a three hour jetlag! All of it so so awesome!

3) Reflection on global DH –––– This is—if possible—an even more personal reflection: realizing that there is a genuine interest in the work done in DH around the world. I always expected a warm welcome to the projects I’ve worked in the past year with two wonderful colleagues Silvia Gutiérrez (mapahd.org) and Esteban Romero (atlascshd.org). The response to the projects, however, widely surpassed my wildest dreams in all of the contexts where I talked about them and with all the colleagues who approached me about them afterwards. Also key to this were, of course, Alex Gil’s talk which received a great response and generated huge interests in GO::DH initiatives, and the Multilingualism in DH unconference I hosted and profited much from.

After these three weeks I can only hope my work might have even a tiny effect on the development and consolidation of a global DH, and I hope to continue running into wonderful colleagues and learning about their passionate work here, there, and everywhere.

DH Tour

I tweeted this three months ago:

Well, it happened. Everything went really well–I could hardly say the opposite. Back at the end of January, I had submitted three papers for RedHD’s 2EHD, one for DHSI Colloquium, and one for CSDH; plus one demo for 2EHD and two more for CSDH. The good news is they all got accepted!!! Also good news is most of the projects being presented are collaborative so there are many more involved in the whole process of first having something to present, getting it ready, and then giving a presentation on it. As a matter of fact, out of those eight presentations only three are on my own. And finally, good news too, there are only two sort of “duplicates” (same topic, different scope or approach), so it’s really five different projects so I won’t be giving the same presentation over and over again.

The sort of terrifying news is they are all taking place within three weeks: between May 21st and June 6th and there are roughly 4,000k in between each stop: London ON – Mexico City – St. Catherine’s ON – Victoria BC – London ON… Then, there’s DH2014, but it looks like I’ll manage to be home for about a month before then. Now we are three weeks away from the initial three-week DH Tour, and I’ve been writing like a madwoman for the last few days, trying to keep apart the different presentations’ topics, and trying to be much more excited than I’m worried about it all. After all, always the best part of going to conferences is seeing dear colleagues along the way and meeting new ones.

I hope to be posting papers and slides right after they’ve been read. See you somewhere!

Notes towards moving ideas around the DH world*

[Update: February 6th. I've translated this post into Spanish here]

I don’t usually like to get involved in the controversial discussions on Digital Humanities. As a junior scholar I feel too exposed to being dismissed as inexperienced or, simply, not read. But in this case, the matter’s too close to home not to say at least a bit on what I’ve learnt in my years as a Spanish speaking DHer working in North America.

I’d like to begin with a recent anecdote.

A few weeks ago during the MLA convention I participated in the only Spanish Literature DH panel: New Digital Vanguards in Spanish Literature. As many other DH sessions it was included in Mark Sample’s extensive list. And as many other DH sessions, it was widely successful–there were people standing and sitting on the floor–the crowd was made up of a large majority of Spanish speaking scholars. When I talked to fellow non-Spanish speaking DHers, except for those who already knew me, I realized none of them had heard about the session.

In casual conversation, a colleague suggested he might have overlooked it because the session was in Spanish. When I pointed out that three out of four presentations were given in English, he suggested that we should’ve indicated that in the panel description, so that others knew they could attend. The titles and abstracts of the presentations were in English. I don’t know what, other that the word ‘Spanish’ on the session title, might have given the impression that the session would be conducted exclusively in Spanish. I want to believe it’s not a lack of interest in non-Anglo DH; afterall, DHPoco’s session on Sunday morning was packed too, but a matter of who brings attention to non-Anglo-American DH to this context, of how to give visibility to what and through which channels.

This anecdote and my blurry thoughts on it clicked on Saturday morning when, like many others, I came across Domenico Fiormonte’s post Humanidades Digitales y Diversidad Cultural and the ensuing debates on Twitter over the weekend.

In that post, Fiormonte challenges the title, and the choice and implications of the contents of Defining Digital Humanities (DDH). Fiormonte’s main concern is how the focus on Anglo-American DH work visible in collections such as DDH are fostering a skewed view of DH around the world. Or as he summarized it on Twitter, “The main point of my critique was that DDH does not reflect DH outside anglo world.” Responding to Bethany Nowviskie’s tweet sharing Fiormonte’s post, Melissa Terras co-editor of the DDH collection argued that DDH “couldn’t feature work which didn’t already exist” and that the contents came “from an analysis of most cited articles from 100+ courses”. Though the methodology explains the selection, on the downside it leaves out materials that, in Terras’ words, “no one reads or cites.”

Terras’ response has some points. It is fair not to know everything. It is fair to acknowledgedly exclude things based on methodological constraints and research or editorial objectives. But it is not fair to say that things don’t exist because we don’t know them. As Fiormonte put it, “The “material” is out there since 1949.” It almost seems unnecessary to say that much has been written on DH in many languages, but it is not unnecessary.

Now, what’s out there? A lot and I don’t think anyone could claim to know it all. I know I can’t, not even in Spanish, and that’s my fault exclusively. However, I have learnt a bit since I started MapaHD (a survey on Spanish and Portuguese DHers) with Silvia Gutiérrez, and that has led me to reflect on the issue of this particular community’s visibility (or lack thereof) for a while.

From MapaHD, we have learnt that early researchers’ trajectories stretch back over thirty years (a token of the polygenetic origin of DH as Fiormonte calls it). Thanks to Antonio Rojas Castro who started an Humanidades Digitales Zotero group in Spanish a few months back, we know that a lot has been written since the early 1980’s, more than I had actually imagined. Rojas Castro’s article “A historical and bibliographical approach to the emergence of Digital Humanities in Spain” offers a fantastic tour of these findings. The Zotero group has benefited from the contributions of about thirty members, and the library has gathered 202 items.

So, there is material. Articles and blog posts have been written, published, discussed, and archived. The archives of DiaHD (DayofDH in Spanish and Portuguese) are an incredible resource, by the way. The question then is what’s missing? Why does all this work seem to some non-existent? What has been the factor keeping from communication channels to be established? Why is it that none, or very little, of it is included in courses? Might it be just language? Why does no one read it? Who is that ‘no one’ Terras refers to? What is behind the “discursive domination” as Fiormonte puts it? What can be done about it?

Isabel Galina very rightly pointed out the need to do translation to favor a global DH community during her DH2013 keynote. Though totally right, her intuition seems to ask that Anglophone DH projects/articles were translated into other languages. However, I wonder if translations into English of DH projects in other languages are a greater necessity. Risking gross generalization, it’s not DH practitioners in other languages that need to come closer to Anglo-American DH (in El Humanista Digital online course, though there were a few complains about assigning readings in English, the majority of the students seemed to have no issue with it) but the other way around. It’s the articles, blog posts, and websites in other languages that seem to be in need of being translated into English or risk going unnoticed from courses and collections like DDH.

In a different article, Galina herself has listed four issues that might contribute to the lack of visibility:

  • Communication channels predominantly Anglo-American are bound to produce information about their initiatives and projects.
  • Although Digital Humanities is predominant, there is work being done in other parts of the world and in other languages.
  • Little is known about the work done in other parts of the world.
  • Information about other DH projects is non-existent or has little visibility. (my translation)

Issues of academic predominance aside. Issues of DH genealogy aside as well. Whether the work done around the world will be known by Anglo-American DH or not is going to be, at least partially, a matter of translation: linguistic as well as physical, since our beloved digital channels and networks seem to be coming short.

Being a Spanish speaking DHer and working in North America, I have many times wondered what I’d take on as my mission in this context. It is equally a professional and a personal concern. How to bring Anglo-American DH closer to Spanish speaking countries?  How to bring Spanish speaking DH closer to English speaking countries? This issue has worried me for a long time (I wrote about it here for DiaHD). I’d like to believe the two movements are not mutually exclusive, but they are hard to mix. And in my extremely privileged position, I’m specially wary of the first option and the risk of becoming an agent of import contributing to build a Spanish speaking audience in Fiormonte’s words “conforming to Anglophone models” or something that looks like it. So I’ve tried to make a little dent in Anglo-American DH through my research work, when I meet colleagues, and through projects like MapaHD, which, incidentally, I started translating a couple of months ago so that it can reach a wider audience.

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to show the world from MapaHD is how taking as a starting point the center-centric DH praxis, we can see how inadequate the notion of ‘center’ was to provide a fair representation and location of the DH praxis around the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. An absence of centers in Mexico or Argentina–to use two examples that radically stand out in CenterNet’s map–certainly does not imply a deficit for DH practitioners in said places, but it does mean that particular work dynamics have been put in place for DH to thrive there too. Far from questioning the soundness of said practices, the issue is how can they be incorporated into a center-centric DH? How can they be invited in? This is a token example, but it’s also very telling of how adjusting the ‘terms’ and tweaking ‘the measuring system’ (from center to initiative/project, for example), can lead to discover a wide variety of practices, approaches, and definitions.

I’ve been pondering about this example above all as a starting point to think how that adjustment or tweaking can be done on a larger scale: to actually and consistently move people and their ideas around the world. I can only imagine that bringing scholars from around the world to North American and UK forums; facilitating the translation into English of even a little bit of the work that’s been done; and other ways of being inviting would have an equally favorable effect. This is something that we need to get used to working for as a community. Still, not everything would be read by everybody, not everything would be cited everywhere, but it would be harder to say that work done around the world doesn’t exist.

Multilingual translation is becoming the norm for conference CFP in the field. On the institutional side why not make it part of the ADHO’s Multi-lingualism and Multi-culturalism committee to search for and translate into various languages a selection of articles and blog posts annually or bi-annually. Non-institutionally, why not those of us who can do it, pick an article/blog post written in a language we can read, and translate it into our first language. It is an effort well worth some extra time/work/people. It is also something that can fruitfully be incorporated into DH courses and seminars: a way to engage hands-on and be responsible of the diversity of the DH field. And it is certainly something that we’d like to see be part of the global DH community if we’re to call it so.

*Many thanks to Josh Honn for his comments and suggestions during the writing of this post.

Digitization Projects as Collaboration with Western Libraries


A calligraphy lessons plate in Diderot’s Encyclopedie from the 1750′s

The last few weeks have been full of digitization fun. At the lab there is only one book digitization project and, though it isn’t large scale, it is kind of a long-term project, whose inherent slowness begins with the availability (or lack thereof) of XVI century books. You know the story…

In the meantime, because the university libraries don’t have a digital strategy yet in place, we have used the infrastructure available at the lab and our own budding experience to collaborate with a series of colleagues around the university in very diverse small-scale projects. It has been through my involvement with these projects that I’ve really learned about digitization. The reason is simple: a larger digitization project starts out with a series of standards and goals and purposes that are kept in place for the duration of it, or at least for the first iteration, stage, or phase. Smaller projects (read one book, a series of plates, a handful of journals) are done much faster and because of their more manageable scale can be re-started and repurposed relatively easily. Thinking about the different uses and reuses of the digital images we produce at the lab depending on each particular colleague and project has made the diversity of possible digitization endeavours evident.


Six heavy volumes from Diderot’s Encyclopedie (yes, digitization is also part physical labor)

When I get together with colleagues to plan the project, we set out an initial path – time and outcome wise. I discuss with them the outcome they’re looking for to make sure I know how to do it or can find out how to do it. Hint, not surprisingly, we almost always start out with full color 600dpi Tiff files and take it from there. Then comes the library paperwork. As expected the library is quite zealous of their special collection materials and it takes a bit of convincing to let them know we won’t be destroying the books, that they won’t be stolen from the card-entry only lab, and that they’ll benefit from the end product when the library archives finally come up with digital strategy. (Having completed successfully a handful of projects, I’m proud to say we have been building a reputation and, each time, it’s a bit easier to go through this process. I am also hoping to expand and tighten the CulturePlex-WesternLibs ties.)Then finally, come the digitization sessions in which each colleague has learned to operate the scanner, and produced the desired digital images. And then again, depending on the nature of the project, some colleagues have also tried our OCR-annotation software, Festos, to produce searchable digital versions, and some others have taken the images for digital exhibitions, for example.


Cutting open two pages from The Savoy (1896)

On a personal note, and one of the reasons why I love this part of my job, I have to say that each small project has had a very endearing rare book moment: cutting folded pages, never seen or opened before (with permission); struggling to keep open and flat a whole leaf XVIII map of Canadian explorers, finding little details in the texture of the paper or a misprint, or just holding in my hands a 500 year old book. And what makes me even happier is that by the looks of it, our collaborations with the library archives and the lovely archivists working there will continue fruitfully.


Written to be changed: on project management and planning

Part of my postdoc duties at the CulturePlex Lab is managing the ongoing projects. To be fair this was already a big part of my RA job while I was still a candidate. The difference now, though, is that without the mental burden of the dissertation, a lot of my reflective thinking is going into how I can do things ‘better’ for the team and the projects, and what that ‘better’ means. So some of the factors that I’ve been considering are the things I believe to be hardest to deal with: deadlines, effective collaboration, and steady development of projects – plus a million little things embedded in each of those three and crossing over all of them. There is a lot of complexity and details within details just in the way projects get planned and many more as they move forward. Thus, I was immensely lucky when this weekend I found myself listening to Lynne Siemens talk about collaboration and project management at both the INKE project meeting and the inaugural gathering for the NYCDH group.

On Saturday, Siemens’s definition of a team as “a set of individuals who work interdependently and are jointly accountable for outcomes” clicked perfectly to how I want to think about project management. Collaboration requires a lot of “being a good colleague” personally (as in respectful and considerate) and professionally (as in committed to the team’s work) as Siemens herself explains in her “Reply all” article. Of course, the question coming out of this is whether ‘being a good colleague’ is something that happens organically or is it something that we can foster: the conclusion seems to be that collaboration does not just happen. Later on, during the coffee break we were talking about the difficulties of even planning for collaboration and how many times teams do not necessarily realize that someone (ideally someone who is not busy with everything else) needs to be facilitating team communication, monitoring project development, setting realistic and encouraging deadlines, etc.

From my experience in my current team and in others, I have observed how among members there might be a sense of overall and larger objectives and goals (publish a joint paper, organize a conference, get a grant, close a journal issue), but these might not be reflective of more immediate manageable ones. Furthermore, without a clear idea of how many steps (goals and objectives in their own right) are involved in achieving those things, it becomes close to impossible to split tasks, meet long term deadlines, and bring all of the projects’ components together into something people might be interested in. And as if that wasn’t enough, or perhaps at the bottom of it all, I have seen my own mesmerized look of confusion reflected on my colleagues’ when we are just unable to speak a common language.

In a hyperactive research team like the one I work with there are always many simultaneous projects, and they tend to feel equally urgent all the time, which we all know is, to say the least, a dizzying experience­. Immense doses of generous willingness (working on a Friday past 11pm) and a borderline healthy level of workaholism have always ensured that we finish projects, submit papers, get demos ready, etc. but I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been tense and scary moments when we weren’t sure things would work out. Because of the methodologies and approaches we follow we usually struggle with four key block stages: definition of the project (research questions, corpus and metadata design), data collection, bibliographic research and data analysis, and writing. Put in this way it seems pretty straightforward. The problem (that black hole feeling of academic work) comes when this process gets multiplied by ‘x’ number of projects –all deceivingly moving at the same time, and divided by ‘y’ number of team members – all equally busy.

This seems to be a recipe for a great nerve-racking “everything is due tomorrow”. Because of this, the question that’s been wandering around my head is: can project management strategies not only ensure project continuity and development but also make, at least, part of the academic stress go away? Or even, should project management concern itself with that or stick to the more ‘practical stuff’? I think it should aim to do both. And, of course, though I have no definitive answers to any of those questions, I do believe that the first step to be gentler on the emotional side of work while still being efficient and accountable and productive, is to prioritize projects differently, or better said, prioritize aspects of projects at different times, conclude manageable portions, and move on to the next – there’s always a next one. In order to do that, however, there needs to be a map taking into account both long and short term goals and deadlines and making it clearer for everybody where we should be focusing our individual and collective energies. I’m also convinced that every member of the team has to agree on and commit to such map so that both infrastructure and human resources are not taken up by less urgent projects – there’ll be time for them even if there’s no time. But, and this is the single most important lesson I’ve learned as a project manager, (and which was also discussed this weekend): it is key to manage change, or as Siemens put it “Keep Calm and Manage Change”. A map and a set of deadlines should not be taken as a sign of team or project inflexibility. In many cases, it might be a bit of a ‘wish list’ written down with the best intentions, but which will, without a doubt, change. Or even better, will be written to be changed.

Content or platform? What is making readers read differently?

Up to now I had mostly looked into the influence of readers who have commented on Orsai constantly. Though a small group, including Hernán Casciari, they keep the dialogue flowing and in many ways have been in charge of the project’s housekeeping, for example, teaching newcomers the community’s – ie. the project’s – organization, practices, and games. Some readers have crossed over and became authors published by Orsai: you can read about that here and here (both in Spanish)

As it usually happens, once one comes across a good dataset full of all kinds of information, it is impossible to analyze everything. One of the questions I have only started to explore is the exploration of the role of incidental readers. What do I mean by incidental? It refers to over half the total number of readers in my Orsai dataset (+6500) who have commented only once or twice over the +2 year period under analysis. Because of their huge variety, it turns out to be pretty much impossible to go and look at each one of them and see their particular relevance to the larger reader community and the whole project. In other words, isolated, incidental readers appear to have little impact over what goes on in Orsai: basically the only conclusion that I managed to get to was an unhelpful “there are a lot of readers who have commented throughout the years in a totally random way”. The only way to look at them significantly was as a whole, not paying attention to whether it was made by someone who comments a lot or a one-timer, and they do turn out to offer a rather different picture. So, with that in mind, data cruncher super hero versae and myself devised a visualization that orders all of the comments left in a particular post both chronologically and according to our own depth parameters (-20 words, -50 words, -150 words, +150 words). Depth parameters, though arbitrarily established sought to account for patters observed in close reading explorations of the comments. We tested three hypothesis, the first is whether comments increase in length – and thus depth – from a simply greeting, for example, into a text’s gloss, in a patterned way. The second hypothesis had to do with a higher recurrence of a given type of comment in one of the four publications media under consideration (Orsai Blog, Redacción, Bar, and Web Magazine). And finally, more a question than a hypothesis: is it content or platform that is directing readers practices in this project.

FreqsSamplesIn these visualizations comments are put together in groups of posts with similar numbers of comments. Apart from what we already knew – that Orsai and Redacción blogs are the ones which consistently get higher numbers of comments, the first hypothesis is partially confirmed as, with some exceptions, it is indeed shorter (-20 word) comments that tend to be posted first, usually right after the text has been published, and then there is an unordered progression in length-depth, but a progression nonetheless. The second hypothesis is quite clearly confirmed, and it is impressive how, proportionally, posts in the Web Magazine (i.e. magazine articles) get longer comments, i.e. even with a reduced number of comments, these tend to be longer than those in other publication media. These results seem to point to the fact that reader involvement is indeed much different according to content in otherwise ‘twin’ platforms like the blogs and the web magazine. By ‘twin’ I mean having the same sort of interactive feature: comments, meant to be read on a screen, and published periodically (print magazine articles were included in the web version daily during a couple of weeks after the print edition was shipped to subscribers). Furthermore, a scarcer but longer and arguably more thought-out reader involvement with the print magazine contents, even in its web version, suggests that readers are actually enacting the slower rhythm of reading associated with print materials. The question, however, still is whether that is something we can attribute to the publication medium or to readers expectations and historically ingrained practices.

P.S. This is likely the last post on Orsai and the remains of my PhD thesis dataset & project. Also, I will be presenting a fuller version of this project at the upcoming INKE NYC gathering.

The end of a project

Yesterday I successfully defended my thesis: the thesis that has been under development in this very blog for the last three years. Two days before, I emailed Casciari (the editor of the magazine I’ve been studying) telling him how my project had come to an end and thanking him for his support. I also said I wished Orsai a long life and many new facets.

One of the questions I was asked during the defense was how I thought the story of Orsai would end. I said I didn’t know, but the forward movement of the the narrative suggested that it’s aim was to go on and keep on mutating the same way it has in the past three years but that its sustainability depended on maintaining a healthy community of readers following and supporting it.

As it turns out, while I was answering questions at the exam, Casciari announced that the 16th issue will be the last. Part of the reason, Casciari explains, has to do with how Orsai has come to be “expected” – a washing off of the story, I would say. The other is, indeed, related to a decline in readership, at least the readership that sustains the project economically.

I can’t say I’m not saddened by the news. After all I’ve spent over two years thinking about Orsai and indeed, this feels like reaching the last pages of a long novel. In the end, however, it is also a bit poetical (and meta) that this happened right now as my own project came to a close.