Exploring multilingual digital editions

The Taylor Institution Library recently launched a new course teaching digital editing, with students able to create digital editions in any language of their choice. I was delighted to be able to contribute by designing the accompanying website on which the texts are published:

I am the editor and developer of several academic resources, including the award-winning Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive (currently English-language poetry only) and the Thomas Gray Archive. My interest in working with multilingual materials was sparked by part of this resource: ‘Gray’s Elegy in Translation’. According to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country-Churchyard’ (1751) is the most anthologized poem of the eighteenth century, and it is one of the most widely and frequently translated, paraphrased, and imitated poems in the English language. With to date at least 266 translations into at least forty languages, the Elegy has inspired translators ever since the earliest translations into Latin appeared in the early 1760s. Since those early translations, the Elegy has been influential in the history of many national literatures, particularly in the context of the evolution of European Romanticism.

Drawing on the extensive collection of Elegy translations compiled by Tom Turk,(1) the purpose of the project is firstly to enable the study of the evolution of translations of the poem in a single language and culture, and secondly to allow for a comparative study of the translations across languages and literatures, initially within, but ultimately beyond European boundaries. The first phase of the project covers the period up to 1805, comprising fifty-seven verse and prose translations of the Elegy in eleven languages (Danish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Welsh). The translations variably highlight changes in the understanding and interpretation of Gray’s poem, reflect cultural borrowings and transfers, betray changes in literary taste, and may even allow us to uncover the circumstances, agency, and purpose of their production in the first place. Thanks to James D. Garrison’s outstanding work,(2) we have a sense of the national context of Gray’s significance in both France and Italy, but for many other European and particularly non-European languages, these histories remain to be written.

The two main objectives for the project website were to provide an intuitive interface to the translations that allows for easy comparison of equivalent passages and to allow users to comment on any part of the original or any of the translations. In the full-text view up to three texts (in any combination of languages) can be explored side-by-side in their entirety, ‘equivalent’ passages are highlighted when hovering over any stanza or paragraph:

In the detailed view any one stanza from any text can be compared with its ‘equivalents’ (if available) in either all of the translations or the translations in a particular language:

Users can add a translation or comment on a translation of any section of any of the texts using a simple click and drag action to mark the section to be annotated:

I would love to gain a better understanding from practitioners on which avenues to pursue (linguistic, stylistic, semantic etc.) for both the enhanced mark-up of the translations and the development of tools (and/or integration of external services, such as dictionaries/thesauri) to provide via the interface. Having caught the multilingual bug, I am also very keen to expand another resource of which I am editor, the Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive (already mentioned above), to include poems in other languages, along with tools for their analysis. Anyone reading this who might be interested in contributing to this endeavour, please get in touch!

I hope you will have a chance to explore the translations, and would love to hear about your experience with the current interface and any changes, improvements, or additions you would like to see in the future. If you can see the potential for any of the techniques mentioned to be applied in the Taylor Editions website, then I would be very happy to explore this further. Please do not hesitate to contact me with your feedback.

Alexander Huber (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
Editor, Thomas Gray Archive

(1) Thomas N. Turk, ‘Search and Rescue: An Annotated Checklist of Translations of Gray’s Elegy’, Translation and Literature 22(1) (Spring 2013): 45-73.

(2) James D. Garrison, A Dangerous Liberty (Newark, University of Delaware, 2009). Garrison covers a wide range of languages, with particular emphasis on French and Italian, and to a lesser extent German, Russian and Spanish.

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