Putting Translations To Work: TransVis

Tom Cheesman (Swansea)

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminar 2013

Friday June 21st at 16:30, in Room G37, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Video recording of seminar (MP4)

Audio recording of seminar (MP3)

Presentation (PDF)

Handout (PDF)

The value of translations is firstly practical: they make a work accessible for those who do not read its original language (or are learning to read it). They also have scholarly and pedagogical interest for histories of reception/appropriation of a work. Each translation is a witness of a moment in a translating culture's history, a peculiar constellation of situated knowledge of a work and will to (ab)use it, an interpretation and a commentary on the work. In a few cases, translations are themselves canonical in translating cultures.

For reasons such as these some Digital Classicists have been exploring ways of projecting markup from richly tagged original-language transcriptions onto those of translations found in digital libraries. This is a low-cost way to create an aligned multilingual library (Bammann/Babeu/Crane 2010): a poly-crib.

But this vision still underestimates the potential value of translations. Where a work has been translated into many languages, and into some languages, many times, the aggregates of translations, across time and space and languages, can yield a new kind of knowledge of that work, among other new knowledge. This is the TransVis hypothesis.

Digital tools can make aggregated translations knowable in new ways as aligned corpora ('macrotexts': Patrick O'Neill; more generally: hypertexts), and by tracing the contours of actual interpretative variety, reveal the lineaments of a work's inherent interpretability. As each translator sees and makes visible different intensities and networks of meaning in a work, the sum of their perspectives should enrich, even re-direct, new readings: even those which are not mediated by linguistic translation. (But which are not?)

Pursuing these ideas, the TransVis project has developed prototype tools and exploratory interfaces around a corpus comprising one scene (10%) of Shakespeare's Othello, in nearly 40 transcribed German translations (1766-2010). The tools are designed to work with translated and translating texts of all kinds, in any languages. Tools and texts are fully accessible at www.delightedbeauty.org/vvv.

The general inaccessibility of translations is a major obstacle for further work. We estimate that over 70 German Othellos are extant in print and typescripts. Only 4 are accessible in full online: 2 in transcripts (Gutenberg) and 2 in page images. This proportion (4:70) is probably typical for multiply translated 'great works' in the digital commons. Certainly the digital stock of translations of classical works seems meagre: The Odyssey is only represented in Perseus in 2 English translations; the Internet Archive and Google Books between them offer seven more English versions; still only a few of the total.

Let as many extant translations as possible of much-translated works be made accessible, comparable and analysable as aggregates, in a digital space: researchers, educators and students can collaborate on new understandings of translated works, as well as of their reception, and of languages, translation, and cultural change and exchange.


  • David Bammann, Alison Babeu, Greogry Crane, 'Transferring Structural Markup Across Translations Using Multilingual Alignment and Projection', JCDL 10 (2010), preprint at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/publications/jcdl27-bamman.pdf
  • Patrick O'Neill, Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation (Toronto, 2005)


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.