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‘Translating Cultures’ and the Digital

Guest Blog by Charles Forsdick

Charles Forsdick


In the first of a series of guest blogs as we prepare for our first workshop, Charles Forsdick reflects on the role of digital culture in his experience as AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for 'Translating Cultures'

Following the ‘Future directions’ consultation in 2009, the Arts and Humanities Research Council launched its current four thematic programmes: ‘Care for the Future’, ‘Digital Transformations’, ‘Science in Culture’ and ‘Translating Cultures.’ All of these themes will remain active until the end of the current AHRC delivery plan in 2018. I have been leadership fellow for ‘Translating Cultures’ since 2012, and have tracked with interest the ways in which the theme – growing organically, with slight steers from specific calls, but largely reflecting the proposals received and then funded – has evolved. Although ‘Translating Cultures’ encompasses the subject domains of the AHRC in all their breadth and diversity, it is not focussed predominantly – in distinction to OWRI – on Modern Languages; instead, it has challenged researchers from across the Arts and Humanities to acknowledge the ways in which their work might be (to deploy terms proposed by Loredana Polezzi) ‘language-indifferent’ and to explore the potential of adopting approaches that are more actively ‘language-sensitive’. As such, ‘Translating Cultures’ reveals the ways in which research in Modern Languages should be central to the Arts and Humanities, a catalytic influence obliging all areas of enquiry – including the digital – to reflect on the implications of what Mary Louise Pratt has called ‘knowing languages and knowing the world through languages’.

Translating Culture

Translating Cultures

‘Translating Cultures’ is now made up a portfolio of around 120 awards, representing the rich range of disciplines, topics and sectors that you would expect to see in work at the cutting edge of Arts and Humanities research. What has emerged, however, are certain ‘hot spots’ and ‘cold spots’, contrasting clusters of awards focused on particular subjects, sectors or fields, with some surprising lacunae in activity. Among the areas to which more attention might, at first sight, arguably have been paid is the digital, addressed tangentially in a number of ‘Translating Cultures’ awards, but featuring as the apparent core focus in very few of them. Considering ‘the digital’ as a discrete area is in itself, however, deeply problematic. It is perhaps more accurate to consider work on and around this key aspect of contemporary culture and society as an expanding dimension of work in the Arts and Humanities, increasingly evident across multiple areas and fields, including Modern Languages itself. As such, rather than presenting the digital as some form of blind spot in ‘Translating Cultures’, I would suggest that the theme reflects the ways in which there is evidence of an ongoing translation into the Arts and Humanities of questions and approaches that emerged initially in the Digital Humanities. ‘Translating Cultures’ is proving central to these shifts, and Modern Languages has much to learn from examples of excellent practice generated across the theme.

The existence of the parallel AHRC theme ‘Digital Transformations’ has allowed a focused exploration of the potential of digital technologies to transform research in the Arts and Humanities, and has provided a much-needed platform for the exploration of new directions in the Digital Humanities and beyond. In parallel to ‘Translating Cultures’, ‘Digital Transformations’ has ensured that AHRC-funded research addresses crucial issues such as intellectual property, cultural memory and identity, and communication and creativity in a digital age. Some of this work – such as my colleague Claire Taylor’s pioneering research on digital art in Latin America – has emerged squarely from Modern Languages (and urgently requires exploration, I would suggest, across other language areas), but activity at the intersection of the two themes has been more limited than I would have expected, suggesting at first glance that there is the risk of a significant missed rendez-vous between these fields. Such an impression would, however, be misleading. ‘Translating Cultures’ has, in fact, provided a proliferation of examples of experimentation and creative engagement between researchers associated with the theme and the digital age more widely. Over the life of the theme, scholars have been experimenting with a remarkable range of digital media, technologies and platforms to design and conduct research, and then to disseminate and share their findings more widely. Some of these engagements have led to unexpected turns – allowing researchers to acquire new skills and access new spaces. These are eloquent examples of the organic development of the Arts & Humanities through engagement with the digital, which intersect with and in many cases underpin more focused conversations on the (re)shaping via the digital of the various disciplines in which we work.  

This is not to say, of course, that there has been no direct innovation regarding digital media as a subject in its own right under the ‘Translating Cultures’ umbrella. One of the inaugural Research Development Awards offered under the ‘Digital Transformations’ theme, the collaborative, multi-disciplinary ‘Version Variation Visualisation’ project applying Digital Humanities methods to multiple comparable translations, intersected directly with ‘Translating Cultures’. A large grant associated with ‘Translating Cultures’, ‘Authors and the World’ led by Rebecca Braun in Lancaster, has included digital considerations amongst its innovative strands of enquiry. And one of the large theme grants, ‘Researching Multilingually’, has depended on digital innovation to sustain collaboration with its key partner, the Islamic University of Gaza: together, they have developed materials for the distance learning of Arabic; ‘Researching Multilingually’ has also delivered an extremely popular mooc on Multilingual Learning for a Globalised World

As suggested already, ‘Translating Cultures’ projects have also, more generally, harnessed the potential of the digital in the presentation of their findings. Databases and virtual exhibitions include the bilingual site of the European Travellers to Wales team, and also that of the researchers involved in the Ottoman Cities network. The innovation award Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography has a website presented in the four languages of the project. Other researchers have exploited the full potential of digital platforms and social media in the development of their scholarly activity, as the transformation of Authors and the World project at Lancaster into a university research centre makes clear. Much ‘Translating Cultures’ material is also available on other platforms, including YouTube, which is used for much more than the recording of conferences, seminars and performances. For example, the Dalit Voices and Vision channel is a striking attempt to reach out to transnational audiences, and the Translating the Deaf Self blog is a highly innovative academic output in its own right. We have also organized a number of thematic activities to which the digital has been core, ranging from a panel at the British Academy on ‘Translation in a Digital Age’ to a more recent workshop at the IMLR on ‘Translation, Translanguaging and Creativity’, involving the scholar TK Lee who has written magnificently about experimental literature and translation technology. Finally, ‘Translating Cultures’ also played a role in Emoticon, an initiative on Empathy and Trust In Communicating ONline, underlining the pressing need for multilingual and cross-cultural sensitivity in this domain. 

Taken together, these activities and outputs indicate what others have already indicated, namely the rich potential within and beyond Modern Languages for engagement with the digital, in more obvious areas such as interlingual translation, but also in emerging areas of interest such as intercultural creativity and the multilingualization of big data. As objects of study, digital media and other phenomena – including video gaming, web pages and websites, social media, digital audio and e-books – also merit urgent attention in Modern Languages research and teaching, not least because our field has the clear potential to inspire new modes of engagement with these digital objects and practices across a range of other disciplines; digital creativity is increasingly shaping the cultures and societies we study; and finally, digital platforms provide not only innovative means for the dissemination of Modern Languages research, but also for its design and conduct.