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.