Translating the untranslated
As part of her doctoral research, Fiona Whelan was faced with the challenge of translating a 2,840-line poem written in medieval Latin. Where passages proved particularly difficult, she enlisted others to help, and this sparked an idea. Could collaborative translation be a solution?
Fiona’s research field – medieval literature – includes countless texts that have not yet been translated into modern English and are therefore under-utilised in scholarship. Academics often lack the time to dedicate themselves to translation work, and although students and amateurs can translate very competently, they often feel ill-equipped to translate to a publishable standard. To address this situation, Fiona decided to bring together academics, students and enthusiasts through an online platform on which they could collectively translate medieval texts in different languages and from different periods. She hoped that the work would both inspire new research collaborations and facilitate meaningful knowledge exchange between the academic community and the general public. The resulting resources would be made available online for the benefit of all.
From concept to proof using freely available (and free) technology
To promote the concept, Fiona set up a WordPress site entitled Medieval Text Translations, a Twitter account (@MedTextTran), a dedicated email account and a Facebook group. She also conducted a survey to determine whether people considered crowdsourcing translations to be a viable pursuit. Many respondents indicated that they were interested in the idea of collaborative translation and the potential outputs, but were less willing to participate. To gauge the validity of these responses, Fiona designed and led a pilot from May to July 2015 in which three poems in Medieval Latin, Middle-English, and Anglo-Norman were translated through crowdsourcing. She chose texts which were relatively short and familiar to her so that she could double-check the translations while they were being made.
Fiona ran the pilot on two free platforms. The first, Google Docs, worked reasonably well, with two translations completed successfully. The second platform, TitanPad, proved more effective as it was easier for Fiona to track each participant’s translation, along with their comments.
On average, each poem took a week to translate. Fiona tidied up the completed translations and asked participants to check them for a final time. She also asked them whether they wanted to be included in the list of named authors. The translations are now in the public domain for scholarly use and can be found on a separate page of the WordPress site.
The twofold benefit: an enthused public and new possibilities for researchers
As a result of Fiona’s initiative, there are now three new translations of medieval texts in the public domain that were not previously available. Indeed, this was the essence of the project: namely, to increase scholarship and speed up the rate at which texts were translated.
More important, the pilot indicated that there is an audience for collaborative translation projects such as Fiona’s, with willing volunteers and an enthusiasm for the potential to generate new scholarship – whether in medieval literature or in other research fields.
During the pilot, the site received over 1,000 unique visitors from around the world, and the Twitter account @MedTextTrans gained over 500 followers. Data from surveys, Twitter and other social media networks indicated that people enjoyed taking part in the project.
The pilot attracted a number of participants outside academia who had prior experience in translations and medieval literature, either from their studies or through personal interest. This indicated that it also served a valuable outreach function, enabling the public both to take an active role in the work and to share in the ownership of the outputs.
Medieval Text Translations has made positive steps to bring academics and the wider community together. Even so, it remains a work in progress, and the next step will be to receive funding to develop a more sophisticated platform.
Words of advice
Fiona Whelan offers these tips for researchers who are inspired to follow her example:
- To develop a trial, start by harnessing your pre-existing skills and the tools already at your disposal.
- Experiment with new online platforms to experience the project from the perspective of your participants.
- Capitalise on your social network to recruit participants.
- Give participants a reason to be involved through incentives – and remember to thank them afterwards!
- Don’t be deterred by an initial lack of funding. Time and effort, in conjunction with free online resources, can demonstrate proof of concept and, hence, strengthen bids for funding.
- Read other case studies in outreach and public engagement in this collection.
- The IT Learning Centre in IT Services runs courses in creating a WordPress site, Twitter for academic purposes and other social media.
- Visit our Engage website for information and advice on digital technologies for public engagement, knowledge exchange and impact.