Speaking the Languages of Digital Scholarship: Translating Data for the Yellow Nineties Personography

This post is part of an ongoing Digital Scholarship Ontario series which highlights the scholarship and teaching experiences of Ontario’s digital scholars.

by Alison Hedley

At DH@Guelph 2016, the topic of translation (specifically and broadly construed) became a recurring theme in panels, conversations, and in the TEI workshop on which I assisted for Dr. Jason Boyd. I’ve often thought that a fundamental challenge of undertaking humanities work with digital tools is one of language and translation. Lexical barriers can make knowledge and critical use of digital tools pretty daunting. Specific tools and types of data analysis have their own lexicons. Then there’s the lexicon of the media theorists, social critics, and computer scientists who have influenced humanities thinking about computers and their relationship to human cultures. And then there’s the practical and theoretical language of computing that shapes the everyday discourse of digital humanities scholars—words like flatten and nest; parse, granulate, and render; encode, make, and model. The language of specific humanities research fields adds another lexical layer to DH discourse—historical periods, textual genres, and critical paradigms.

As a student research fellow and RA at Ryerson’s Centre for Digital Humanities, I have learned that a DH project involves maneuvering between computational, theoretical, disciplinary, and historical languages to translate data into a form that serves the project’s goal. I am the lead researcher for the Yellow Nineties Personography, a database that documents biographical metadata for contributors to four 1890s periodicals: The Yellow Book, The Evergreen, The Savoy, and The Pagan Review (list years and include links for each). The Y90s Personography is part of The Yellow Nineties Online, an e-resource for studying these avant-garde British magazines.

Our personography is a work in progress. Between 2013 and 2015, the personography team developed the first iteration of our 351-person data set, which exists in spreadsheet form. In early 2015, I developed some initial visualizations of the biographic metadata and co-presented our personographic findings thus far with project supervisor Dr. Janzen Kooistra. Over the coming months and years, we will 1) create an XML version of the personography that conforms to TEI guidelines; and 2) continue to manipulate the data through visualization. We hope that visualizing the data will give users a sense of some broad patterns in contributor identities and textual lives, illuminating historical ambiguities and obscurities that warrant further investigation.

The Y90s Personography draws on disciplinary, historical, computational, and theoretical discourses to mobilize data about the international network of writers, artists, editors, and publishers who shaped The Yellow Book, The Evergreen, The Savoy, and The Pagan Review. Translating between these discourses responsibly has proved less straightforward than I initially supposed.

Translational challenge #1: translating prosopography, a method for documenting historical groups of people, into something that works for us. A key word of prosopographic language is population: prosopography involves studying the relationships of individuals in a particular group and extrapolating a collective biography of the “typical” subject. Such an approach flattens individual idiosyncrasies into unambiguous data that describes the population average. Prosopography allows a researcher to develop an estimative narrative about people who left little documentation of their lives behind. However, it imposes an average identity that can conflate with the dominant socio-cultural subject of the era being studied. In the print industry of 1890s London, that subject would be a white, upper-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative, European male.

We’ve responded to this dilemma by using prosopography’s younger sibling, personography, for our study. Personography is a method for documenting biographical data that was developed by the TEI Consortium in response to the needs of humanities researchers like us. As the descriptor suggests, personography emphasizes the individuality of persons in a biographical dataset. Personography is also, like all things TEI, flexible in its application. We can customize our personography vocabulary and structure (schema) to suit our project’s values.

Translational challenge #2: translating and curating information from historical documents and scholarship on the 1890s. This involves interpreting the turn-of-the-century British cultural lexicon and its documentation by scholars into a vocabulary that is internally consistent, frugal, practical, TEI-compatible, and responsible. This lexicon includes occupational and institutional designations not typical in 21st century Canada, such as barrister and solicitor (not the same thing!) and atelier (a small, somewhat informal art school run by an established artist). It includes words and phrases used to indirectly express behaviours and states that Victorians did not usually describe outright for propriety’s sake (such as pregnancy) or for which people had not yet developed a common vocabulary (such as the LGBTQ spectrum). Historical scholarship has already interpreted much of the 1890s lexicon into contemporary language, but not always in ways that we agree with. And in some cases, responsibly translating a person’s biographical data proves difficult when one is trying to use a consistent and frugal vocabulary across a whole data set. For example, the author William Sharp had a second life as the celebrated female poet Fiona MacLeod. MacLeod is more than a pseudonym but less than a biologically distinct entity. We document her as a separate person in our personography, but she and Sharp share an XML identifying number.

Our other translational challenges are specific to digital methods for remediation: #3 turning our spreadsheet data into TEI-conformant XML files, and #4 visualizing that data. We haven’t arrived at the visualizing stage, although we anticipate a perplexing and rewarding adventure. Remediating the spreadsheet version of our personography into XML is our foremost challenge at present. This requires competency in TEI terminology, instructions for use, and relevant basics of XML markup language itself. To turn our data into TEI XML, we have to settle on a tag set that works for us using some language that TEI has already established, and adding some specialized vocabulary of our own. We also have to figure out how to document our use of terms in the XML files so that others can understand the interpretive choices that underpin our translation of biographical information about persons.

Our last challenge involves the politics of translation. In our work, we try to adhere to a praxis with queer and feminist political underpinnings. Many of the above translational challenges point to the political implications of using digital methods to make non-normative historical persons visible. We try to foreground that our personography is but one translation of the contingent, interpretive factoids of the past (to use Norman Mailer’s descriptor for biographical data).

Alison Hedley is a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, where she specializes in Victorian print media. Her dissertation situates popular illustrated magazines within emerging mass media culture at the turn of the nineteenth century. An active participant in the DH Training Network, Alison is a HASTAC scholar and student research fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Digital Humanities, where she’s been the team lead on the Yellow Nineties Personography Project since 2013.

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