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.

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!