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What drew you to Words Without Borders (and the digital humanities more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
The field of digital humanities (DH) is a hotly contested one, for sure. The definition is ever evolving, but the one that has most closely informed my (and my research partners’) exploration of the field stems from a conversation between Mathew Hannah and Miriam Posner on the librarypunk podcast back in 2021. Hannah states, “Half of digital humanities is applying computational tools to the humanities, the other half is applying the humanities to computational tools and technology. How can we use humanistic forms of critique to analyze things like data, algorithms, artificial intelligence, social media, etc.?”
Ultimately I am curious to explore how we can cultivate appreciation, access, understanding, and preservation of the literary arts (and the arts more broadly) with the digital technologies of today (with respect to the definition above). Initially Words Without Borders’ (WWB’s) mission to spotlight “literature in translation” from “underrepresented and marginalized” languages by providing an online platform really resonated with me. But as I dove deeper into the DH fellowship workflow (and the archive), I became enchanted by the sheer range of stories, poetry, and narratives that originated from all corners of the world. So it wasn’t just their mission that I wanted to cultivate and uphold through the activation of a DH mindset, but it became necessary to also preserve the evolving community of international authors (that I have personally grown a connection to) and their works of literary art for all of digital perpetuity.
For the second part of that question, I would say I am an active learner of languages, but a novice at complete fluency. Those who can hold the key to language acquisition and also unlock the fluency doors are magical beings. I realize this might be commonplace for countries outside the United States, but I think it is important to stress the amazing feat of people simultaneously maintaining and utilizing multiple sets of grammar rules, sentence structures, characters, directionalities, and meaning frameworks in day-to-day communication logistics AND creating art with words.
Most of your time as the Digital Humanities Fellow has been deep in WWB archive, what can you share from that experience?
Working in the depths of the WWB archive afforded me the opportunity to really appreciate the long-term dedication WWB has had to amplifying a wide range of voices, even cutting through the tendency of countries (especially in the Global North) embroiled in intercountry conflict to create information embargoes. WWB doesn’t shy away from elevating writers and translators from countries on the “other side” of the conflict. Taking an example from their first year of publication, 2003, they ran pieces from contributors in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia, Pakistan, China, and Iraq, to name just a few.
Holistically, the experience has really ignited my motivation and underscored the need to preserve the volatile nature of this (and really any) born-digital archive. The world needs to maintain access to this important collection of work even when the current technologies supporting them obsolesce.
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
Speaking in just the realm of WWB, I fully support publishing any language that has not yet been published by them. With the unfortunate knowledge that countless languages, many indigenous, have fallen into dormancy or are on the brink of endangerment, there is perhaps an opportunity for WWB to provide a new platform to expand access to these languages.
As I was squirreling away in the archive, I discovered that WWB ran two different translations of the same piece, The Best Seller by Germano Almeida, in 2007. Comparing and contrasting each translator’s interpretation of the piece expanded my understanding of how nuanced the art of translation can be. Check out each version for yourself: by Clifford E. Landers and by Daniel Hahn. I would love to see more of that type of interplay between translation choices, decisions, and the resulting effect on the reader.
You have expertise in research and data analysis, but you’re also a photographer and multimedia artist. How have these experiences informed your work at WWB?
My background in research, data analysis, and more broadly, continuous improvement, have definitely informed my approach (in the tactical sense) with the work at WWB. Those experiences have erected a logistical framework in my brain, but the creative parts that I tend to employ with my artistic endeavors, like photography, dance, performance, or multimedia work, fill the voids of that logical framework. That balance enables both radical acceptance (of change, of new ideas, of situations outside of the binary, etc.) and application of critical thought to challenge the status quo. The combination of the two is then propelled by the drive to produce a measurable outcome.
Beyond the digital humanities and literature in translation, what are your passions and interests?
I really like lists. So, here is a list of passions and interests:
Jessika Davis is the 2023 Words Without Borders Digital Humanities Fellow. She holds a BFA in Photography from Lesley University College of Art and Design and an MS in Museums and Digital Culture with an Advanced Certificate in Digital Humanities from Pratt Institute. Her research centers around experiential data, human computer interaction, and the transformation of cultural heritage digital collections into linked open data. She comes to NYC by way of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Virginia.