spokes of a bike blurry and textured

Multilingualism in DH

by Élika Ortega

The issue of multilingualism in scholarly exchanges and ways of being sensitive to diversity is always a necessary part of academic endeavours. Fortunately, there has been a large portion of DH practitioners who have been eager to talk about multilingualism and diversity and have strived to make it patent. Starting with two classics, Domenico Fiormonte’s “Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities” (2012) and Alan Liu’s “What is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” (2012) our attention was drawn to some partial assumptions about the political and cultural dimensions that needed to be incorporated into the emergent field. Further discussions within DH have too paved the way for the work that everyone at GO::DH and many others have been doing on fostering diversity and multilingualism—Tara McPherson’s “Why are the Digital Humanities so White?” (2012), Marin Dacos “La stratégie du Sauna finlandais” (2013), and Isabel Galina’s “Is There Anybody Out There? Building a Global Digital Humanities Community” are but three out of many great approaches to the issue.

Something very valuable that can be learned from the work of these and other scholars is that there is only so much that can be done for the sake of diversity and inclusivity if we keep the dialogues within an extended, though cohesive, community dominated by the use of English largely as a lingua franca—and at times even as the field’s native language. The issue is, of course, not the tight links that DH as a community has fostered through collaborative and interdisciplinary work—we all benefit greatly from that—but an on-and-off lack of linguistic heterogeneity in our scholarly sources and outputs: the most pressing implication being the fragmentation of the field, again, into isolated language or area focused subfields. I wonder if that is a path we wold like to follow? And if we do, to what extent or at what times so that it is fruitful in its own way? Our changing disciplinary practices, especially the collaboration turn can easily be the foundation to foster dialogues and exchanges among diverse linguistic communities without blending everything together and respecting each ones specificities. Our communication channels, though imperfect, are still the basic tools to do it. Some extra work is necessary, but it seems only fair as we have the privilege of giving DH its future shape.

When I started working on this subject, there seemed to be a prevalent notion that there was little DH work done outside of the English-speaking world. Or at least that it wasn’t readily available. Surely we don’t know it all now, but I do think that thanks to some small scale projects like the GO::DH Translation Commons, DH2014 DH Whisperers, and bigger ones like AroundDH again and now the Translation Toolkit in the making have helped us humbly realize how much there is that we don’t know. These projects along with many others have been both exploration missions and laboratories to help us, at least, get a sense of what’s out there and how we can share it and know more about it all. They have also evidenced how much this work necessarily has to come from every direction, to be a collective effort in order to have a real impact. Not everything can be translated into or from every language. Not everything can be part of a collection.

I hope this does not seem a pessimistic outlook. I see it as the contrary. We can’t know everything that is being produced everywhere and in each language in the expanding field of DH, but we can know more than we currently do. The recognition of the limitations of our work, it’s span, and it’s reach is not just humbling, it should also set things in motion to support and implement more multilingual and translation projects both formally and informally.

Last June, in his closing keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, Alex Gil recounted how in GO::DH “we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on the community itself.” Following him, of course, the problem of multilingualism in DH is that we can’t all speak every language, but if we want DH to be global, we have each other in the global community to work towards that. The challenge now is pinpointing what strategies are embraced by the community and foster the involvement of as many DH practitioners as possible, and which ones, though well intended, are not as successful and need a bit of tweaking. Consider for example Martin Grandjean’s work, who right before the beginning of DH2014 showed that even though the call for papers for the biggest conference in the field was published in twenty-three languages, submissions were done in only six languages other than English. Translating the CFP in as many languages as possible is a great and noble effort that has involved many, but why has it not fostered more diverse submissions for the conference? In contrast, the informal project DH Whisperers gathered around 100 volunteers, and thus helped demonstrate how multilingual DH really is and the extent to which people are willing to partake in these projects. Similarly, though ideated and led by Alex Gil, AroundDH relied on the support of over twenty collaborators from all over the world.

The success of these projects is a token of  how we can all work through small efforts that will surely have a strong resonance. Working towards incorporating a larger number of linguistically diverse sources and dialogue with them is an enormous opportunity to enrich the knowledge produced theoretically and practically around the world in our still very much variable and undefined field. Reaching out to and bringing in scholars from around the world can be another way to set in motion productive exchanges. We are also situated in a landscape where, though still not perfect, open access online publications can facilitate more global scholarly exchanges. The possibilities seem endless and it is a matter of trying them out. As it has been said repeatedly by many, incorporating diversity and multilingualism into our scholarly practices is not easy, and we are often confronted with implementation difficulties, resource expenses—economic and otherwise— and logistic challenges such as viability and sustainability. Needless to say they are worth the effort and the invitation for everyone is wide open.


Élika Ortega is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on digital literature, (not necessarily digital) media, intermediality, reading practices and interfaces, books, networks, digital humanities, and multilingualism in academia. She is co-curating the E-Lit exhibit Hispanic Legacies in Electronic Literature: The Trace of Experimental Writing in Spain and Latin America (2016). Aside from her core research, Élika has worked extensively investigating and promoting multilingualism in Digital Humanities. She coordinated the DH Whisperers project during DH2014, an ad hoc community translation exercise, and TranslateDH a collaborative translate-a-thon during DayofDH 2014. At GO::DH she is now working on a Translation and Multilingualism Best Practices Toolkit. Élika works very closely with RedHD in Mexico, is a member of the GO::DH Executive Committee, and has been elected to the Executive Council of the ACH for the 2015-2018 term.

[“spokes” by flickr user Alex licensed under CC-BY-2.0]

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