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MPublishing's platform creates universal language

By Lynne Raughley

It was an ambitious project for its time, and perhaps for any time: “Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers” (translation: “Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts”) was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1777, consisting of 21 volumes with more than 70,000 articles alphabetically arranged from asparagus to zodiac, and 11 additional volumes of elegant and precise engraved illustrations. Its goal was to encompass all knowledge—including the details of trades and crafts like blacksmithing and jam making—and it was the signal achievement of the French Enlightenment and of its editors, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert.

Although the editors were themselves contributors, the endeavor was far too large in both scale and scope to rely on the output and expertise of two, or even ten, people. In fact, there were more than 140 contributors to the Encyclopedia, among them philosophers, physicians, craftspeople, and scientists, who hailed from all over France. In other words, it was the product of what we might today call crowdsourcing, albeit at the speed of 18th century technologies. It took more than twenty years to complete, was a success by any measure, and is widely believed to have greatly influenced the intellectual underpinnings of the French Revolution.

Now, 250 years later and enabled by 21st century technology, a crowdsourced effort is underway to make English translations of Encyclopedia articles freely available to readers everywhere. The project was sparked by Dena Goodman, U-M Professor of History and Women’s Studies, who, surmising that she was not the only one translating Encyclopedia articles for classroom use, imagined a platform to collect this work and inspire further translations that would serve non-specialist, non-francophone readers and students. Goodman found her way to MLibrary’s Scholarly Publishing Office (now MPublishing), which developed the platform’s web and database infrastructure, and in 2004 the “Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project” was born.

Goodman continues to coordinate the project, along with Jennifer Popiel of Saint Louis University and Sean Takats of George Mason University (who earned his PhD at U-M in 2005). MPublishing’s Kevin Hawkins oversees the technical side of the project, coordinating the work of programmers and students to enhance the site (they recently added 300 sets of engraved illustrations) and to process incoming translations for publication. But the translations themselves are the work of volunteers—a group that includes francophone scholars and students from around the globe, language-proficient experts in less scholarly topics such as banking, bookbinding, and fencing, and professional translators whose enthusiasm for the project inspired them to donate their services.

The project website is the portal to a wide range of resources beyond the growing number of translated articles (which can be browsed and searched by their French and English titles, category of knowledge, and author). Additional materials include links to text and page images of the original articles and illustrations (via the ARTFL Encyclopédie  Project at the University of Chicago); translations of d’Alembert’s “Preliminary Discourse” (preface) and Diderot’s  “Map of the System of Human Knowledge”; and resources for translators, students, and instructors.

Goodman explains that none of the previously published English-language editions of the Encyclopedia included more than 100 articles, and few if any of these are currently in print. (The project has received permission from copyright holders to scan and include in the project some of these published translations.) By contrast, more than 1,200 translated articles are now online, more than 1,000 of them supplied by project volunteers.

That leaves about 69,000 articles to translate, but Goodman says it was never the project’s goal to translate the entire work. “All we can say is that people continue to volunteer, and previous contributors continue to translate new articles. We’ll continue to publish translations as long as people volunteer to do them.”

Of course scholars of French history like Goodman can go to the original for their own research; for them, the translations are teaching tools, rendering the texts available to their students. But because the Encyclopedia is widely considered the most important text of the European Enlightenment, and is hugely informative about 18th-century life and the state of knowledge in 18th-century Europe, the project resources support many different disciplines.  As Goodman says, “There is no other way for students who are not fluent readers of French to enter into this intellectual world.”

The project welcomes student contributors, particularly those studying French, though coordinators ensure that undergraduates work with a faculty mentor. Project coordinators do not edit submissions, though they make minor corrections and sometimes ask volunteers to revise translations that do not meet basic standards of accuracy and readability.

Of the Encyclopedia, Diderot wrote: This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will. Substitute ‘people’ for ‘men,’ and those same words aptly describe the Encyclopedia Collaborative Translation Project.

MPublishing is the primary academic publishing division of the University of Michigan.  It creates, promotes, distributes and preserves scholarly, educational and regional materials in digital and print formats.

Lynne Raughley is a writer for University of Michigan Libraries.