Arabic

“Not being an archivist, nor an academic, however I learned how important it was to preserve those memories.” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part two)

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

(Archivoz) What language barriers does the project face?

(Juan) When we started, our core team agreed that Qisetna would commit to promoting the cultural heritage of Syrians, which included publishing the stories in English and Arabic. As many of the collaborators were ordinary Syrians, the stories were written and told in dialect, and we decided to respect that. Our team of translators, who are spread all over the world, were aware of this, and our editors acknowledge the local accents of the authors. We make a great effort to respect the integrity of the voice, balancing the style and the standard Arabic used. Our aim is to make visible the diversity of accents and dialects across Syria, which we believe should be preserved and documented for Syrians themselves.

(Archivoz) How does this project work in terms of its structure? What do the volunteers do? If somebody would like to volunteer, how can they become involved?

(Juan) Our initiative operates with a horizontal structure, meaning we make decisions as a team. As a creative producer my role is to propose new activities to the editorial team. Our volunteers are a mix of professionals and students, both Syrian and a wide range of other nationalities. We actively encourage Syrians to participate in ways that benefit them, such as meeting other Syrians, or learning skills in creative writing, marketing, social media, etc. Our volunteers contribute to the project as editors and translators; and recently some volunteers have started to produce digital content for our social media.

(Archivoz) Could you explore the future of the project?

(Juan) Qisetna is anchored in the reality of what is happening in Syria and how Syrians are adjusting to the huge demands of the circumstances they are living under. The power structures are establishing a new status quo in the country. We are continuing to contact individuals in the hope of sharing our concern for the preservation of memories that are otherwise in danger of fading away. We are also connecting with the Syrian diaspora across Europe and beyond, as well as talking to universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in Turkey to assist with translation. Turkey is an important place for us as there are many Syrians living and settling there and we want to increase public awareness. Many Turkish people do not come into contact with Syrians and when they do, they often display xenophobia and racism. There is a massive language barrier because a majority of Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, which means they cannot engage with Syrians. We are planning to translate the project into Turkish, to make the stories accessible to Turkish readers both on our website and social media, thereby promoting social integration. We honestly believe this can help tackle the increasing hostility against newcomers. Our aim is to engage Turkish citizens in the translation and encourage dialogue across communities.

We also have plans to develop our social media presence. For example, we are planning to create a YouTube channel which will feature interviews with Syrian artists living in the diaspora. We hope that the In Focus platform can promote Syrian artists who want to share their experiences, vision, and artistic practices.

Secondly, we are growing our archive in order to preserve Syrian cultural heritage and this allows us to develop new content. We pride ourselves on being different from other archives because we work with current stories and contemporary oral history. We are what you would call a living breathing archive which is constantly developing.

(Archivoz) We are an archivist journal. We know that you are not an archivist project but your project appreciates the importance of preserving oral history of Syria. Could you explore this aspect?

(Juan) Oral stories are told by living individuals about their own past, or the past of other people. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records. We also understand the importance of connecting stories across generations and want to disseminate content using platforms that are used by young people. We recently started a campaign, Syrian Diaries, in which we asked Syrians to share a photo of an object that is precious to them and a short story attached. Qisetna is actively exploring new ways not only to preserve but also to share and disseminate the stories that land on our desks. Podcasting is a new way to engage with global audiences and we are producing digital content to connect Syrians across borders with contemporary artists through our new project In Focus.

(Archivoz) In 2017 you won an award form ARA (Archive and Records Association UK and Ireland). Was that gratifying? Could you tell us a little bit about what the award consists of?

(Juan) The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national organisation which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK. Its Community Archive Award celebrates the contribution of community archives within the archive sector and aims to promote and share good practice. Qisetna (Talking Syria) was the overall winner in 2017, and also won the ‘Most Innovative’ category in this year’s awards. In reaching their decision, the judges commented:

Qisetna (Talking Syria) is an extra-ordinary example of an archive both preserving the voices of displaced and fractured communities for the future and acting as an engine of community resilience in the present. This is an archive at its best: raw emotion, portraying real life and its impact on individuals and families, community leadership and involvement, a focus on tomorrow – the younger generation – and an excellent website for outreach and advocacy. This archive will become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it is also – evidently – succeeding in its principal short-term goal of community building. We also commend Qisetna’s website and encourage everyone to take a look. The use of large apps gives a wonderful simplicity and clarity. From the first click, we all felt compelled to keep reading.

(Archivoz) Since the award, has the ARA been in contact with the project? Do you have any archivist volunteers? 

(Juan) We are currently seeking an archivist and this is one of our priorities for 2019. As a small team we have so far always been preoccupied with sourcing stories, editing, translating, and mentoring the contributors.

(Archivoz) Do you have any archive systems or an inventory for your project?

(Juan) We don’t have any. With all our content, we rely entirely on our bilingual archive, and disseminate it through our social media. At present we are talking to several academic institutions which we feel could help with building an inventory for Qisetna, becoming a repository for future researchers.

(Archivoz) Are you aware of the issues and problems of digital preservation? Do you ever consider that?

(Juan) It would be unfortunate if one day the web disappeared! For the past seven years we have been producing data and digital content that is available on the web. Although we produce a monthly backup of our archive and are learning how to effectively preserve and make our content accessible, we have had to learn more about how to secure the content from technological failures or errors.

(Archivoz) Many thanks for your time and the opportunity to explore this amazing project.

<< back to part I of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

“I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part one)

Today, we have an atypical interview, not with an archivist or anyone related to our sector, but with Juan delGado, a director and founder of a project called Qisetna. Here he explores Qisetna, an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora.

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Juan to learn about the project and explore how it relates to our sector.

(Archivoz) How did this project come about? Can you tell us about its beginnings?

(Juan) In 2011 I was invited by Artschool Palestine in Nablus to develop a project in collaboration with students of Media at An-Najah National University. I spent six weeks researching and learning about how young Palestinians were living. Despite the extremely oppressive conditions of their lives, these young students laughed in a way that I later understood was a form of resistance: “they are colonising our land and they also want to occupy our minds; but laughing is the best way to keep anger away….’  There, I produced my first project in the Middle East entitled, ‘Fluctuations on Time’, in which I started to collect oral stories from young people, their grandparents, and neighbours based in Nablus.

At that time, I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people who until then seemed detached from me and yet, through listening to their stories, had become closer. It was September 2011, and young Syrians had started peacefully demonstrating for change. I learned also that Syria had experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns, and the civil uprising turned from a predominantly peaceful protest movement into a militarized rebellion. I started to contact Syrians through social media to try to understand the situation on the ground. My motivation was not political; after my experience in the West Bank, I was increasingly interested in learning about these communities that I knew so little about.

(Archivoz) Could you tell us what Qisetna is and what the aims of the project are?

(Juan) In 2013, I initiated this project called ​Qisetna (Talking Syria)​, which in Arabic means “our story”. Qisetna is an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora. At the time, the massive influx of images coming through mainstream media showed the destruction of cities and bombing of civilians by all sides. Syrians witnessed the transformation of their country into a hellish battlefield, while the rest of the world seemed paralysed and failed to stop the massacre. In the middle of this tragedy, we decided to approach Syrians themselves with a determination to listen. Using social media and based on the trust we had already built through our friends and contributors, in late 2014 our network spread into areas that were physically impossible to access.

We organised a creative writing workshop with a group of children based in Yarmouk, a former refugee camp inside Damascus. This project was a collaboration with Bassam Dawood, a Syrian actor and Hakawati (storyteller) who was living in exile in Berlin, and Jafra, an organisation based in Yarmouk. Using Skype, Bassam connected to the place where the children were and during a six-week period he encouraged them to write a story. It was an extremely challenging project as we first had to establish trust, but the children participated and engaged with writing their stories. This proved for us that social media could be used in a meaningful way to connect with individuals and communities that were impossible to reach physically.

Encouraged by the response from our workshop in Yarmouk, we contacted a young man from Darayya, a city outside Damascus. We had learned that a group of young people had been rescuing books from under the rubble and had built a library of hundreds of books. He apologised for not being able to speak as he had just found out that his father had been killed the previous day. This and other experiences of the young people we were trying to reach, pushed us to moments of tremendous despair, forcing us to reflect on our goals and the consequences of working in such stressful circumstances.

(Archivoz) What is the process leading up to publication?

(Juan) Reaching out to people has been my role since the beginning. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a Spanish family whose members carried the trauma of a civil war. Like many who survived the war, my grandparents could not talk directly about what had happened, and it was only later that I came to understand how many people were living with the trauma of those days. Many turned to drink or violence as a coping mechanism to deal with something that they did not know how to address.

Being neither an archivist, nor an academic, I nevertheless learned early on how important it is to preserve memories. This is one of the main reasons I started Qisetna (Talking Syria) in 2013. In collaboration with two young Syrians, including a journalist, we decided to rescue the tradition of the Hakawati, which refers to a poet, actor, comedian, and historian rolled into one: someone who tells stories. Its root is ‘haka’, to tell a story, or ‘hikayah’, a fable or story, and ‘wati’ implies expertise in a popular street-art.

We wanted to draw out the Hakawati from inside every Syrian, and create a safe space for Syrians to tell their stories. We wanted them to re-claim their voices, which in many cases have been taken from them by the war.

From the very beginning, we wanted to publish in both Arabic and English. This required a tremendous effort to translate and edit the stories in both languages. However the most challenging part was to source the stories and access potential writers, most of whom are ordinary Syrians, students, farmers, some with no formal education. For this we used social media and word of mouth to first build trust, explaining that our project had no political agenda. We noticed that many people had become suspicious of other Syrians and felt utterly frustrated that their tragedy, their individual stories, were not fully acknowledged by the media.

So the process of reaching out to people required us to pay attention to their specific background. This required that we understand not only our own purpose in asking them to share, but also that we pay attention to the dramatic situation many were living under. Our requests of “would you write a story?” were met with surprise and disbelief. However, we gently initiated this conversation which allowed many to re-establish themselves in their own context; they told me “my country is under war, all rubble…and you, coming to ask me to write a story, to tell you a story…. has made me realise how detached I have become from my own being… I see now that I have been living in survival mode for all these past years since the war started.” This initial conversation is the first opportunity to start building trust by carefully listening and giving time for the person to come to terms with their feelings. Once the person agrees to write or tell the story, we assist by reading the draft and asking questions that will shape the story. Some stories have taken more than two months to materialise.

>> proceed to part II of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

Translating for a Digital Archive

The Qatar Digital Library

Since 2012, the British Library has been working with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library to create and maintain the Qatar Digital Library. Launched in 2014, this free, bilingual portal hosts a growing archive of previously un-digitised material primarily from the BL’s collections. Focusing on content relevant to the history and culture of the Persian Gulf, items include India Office Records, maps, visual arts, sound and video, and personal papers. The portal also features selected Arabic scientific manuscripts. Alongside these items, the QDL also offers expert articles to help contextualise the collections.

As part of the BL’s translation team, I work to produce and edit the Arabic language content for the QDL. While the collection items themselves are displayed solely in their original language, all of the portal’s supporting and descriptive content is translated, as are the expert articles, meaning that the catalogue can be searched and used just as easily in Arabic as in English.

The bilinguality of the portal has been a key part of increasing the visibility and accessibility of the collections. Users of the QDL are just as likely to access the site in Arabic as they are in English, if not even more so: the most frequently visited individual page on the site is the Arabic homepage and users more often land on one of the Arabic pages than the English ones. Moreover, the terms users enter to search the collections are just as often written in Arabic as they are in English. Consequently, we have a responsibility to maintain the same high stands and make sure that all of the QDL’s features function equally well in both languages.

Our Toolbox: Translation management software

Like many large-scale translation projects, ours involves multiple translators, and several rounds of proofing and quality checks to ensure accuracy and consistency. To manage this, we use a piece of software called memoQ that includes two essential tools: a translation memory (TM) and a term base (TB). The TM functions as a bilingual database of previously translated segments of text; it works by storing pairs of original source-language content alongside its approved translation. When a new text is imported, memoQ breaks it into smaller segments on the basis of punctuation and line breaks, and automatically conducts a search for exact and partial matches. These are then presented to the translator for approval and/or review.

Caption: A segment in memoQ with an exact match (100%) in the TM

Caption: A segment in memoQ with a partial match (85%) in the TM

While a human expert still has the final say on whether to accept any suggestion from the TM, frequently only a minor edit is needed to make the old translation suitable for the new context. This serves the double purpose of saving time and maintaining consistency across the catalogue as a whole. Translation memories tend to prove their worth the larger they are and the more repetition there is in the content. Having grown over the years since the start of the project, our TM now routinely recognises a third of content in a new file, and often much more.

While the TM grows organically over time by compiling and storing translation segments, the term base is maintained manually. It works as a glossary for key terms, allowing us to suggest preferred equivalents for individual words or phrases, and/or to blacklist translations that should be avoided. As the TB is visible to all parties at all stages of translation and proofing, it helps to ensure the consistency of these terms in Arabic.

Caption: A segment in memoQ with terms recognised by the TB highlighted in blue

Caption: Terms recognised by the TB, with approved translations in blue and forbidden ones in black

Authorities: making the most of memoQ

The TB has proved especially useful when it comes to translating authority files. An authority record serves to identify and describe a person, corporate body, family, place name, or subject term that is featured in a catalogue description. Each term is authorised and unique. As every record and every expert article on the QDL is linked to at least one authority file, they form an index through which users can search for all the content related to a specific term.

Caption: Authorities displayed as filters on the QDL

Caption: Authorities displayed at the end of a record on the QDL

To be effective, authorities must be reproduced in exactly the same way for every record. For the English side of the portal, they are extracted from the same central database each time, with no opportunity for them to mutate or change before arriving on the portal – but not so with the Arabic!

For every record, the linked authorities are included as part of the English text to be translated, no matter how many times they may have been translated in the past. This repetition of the process creates an opportunity for discrepancies to creep in. If, for instance, there are several new records, all linked to the same new authority, that are sent to several different translators, it is not only possible but quite likely that each translator will produce a valid but slightly different version of the term in Arabic. If the same records then also go to different proof readers, there is a good chance that the discrepancies will slip through unnoticed, rendering the Arabic authority much less useful than the English equivalent, as any one variant will not be linked to all the related content.

After spending much time and energy on trying (and sometimes failing) to catch these discrepancies at the end of the proofing process, we now make sure to pre-translate any new authority and add it to the TB, along with a unique identifying number (arkID), before sending the related files for translation. This means that when the term appears for translation, it is displayed in the TB along with its arkID, adding an extra means of checking whether this is the approved and appropriate translation for this specific context. Once confirmed and thereby added to the TM, it registers as a 101% match, meaning that there is an exact match not only in the text, but also in the metadata.

Caption: Authority term with arkID displayed in TB, registering as 101% match in memoQ

Cataloguing for Translation

Working in-house at the BL alongside the cataloguers allows the translation team to understand and appreciate their processes and standards, and has also allowed us to show them the impact of their decisions and choices on translation. Over time, we have developed guidelines to help them create the English records with translation in mind. For example, where possible, the cataloguers now use stock phrases for repeated content, leading to a much higher hit rate in the TM, and they understand that their use of punctuation can make a big difference to the likelihood of a match appearing.

Caption: Stock phrase with multiple TM hits in memoQ

Caption: List of correspondents written using punctuation marks to help break the text into smaller translation segments in memoQ

Small changes like this help to streamline the translation process, so we can focus on maintaining the QDL’s high standards across the Arabic side of the portal and make sure the content is just as accessible in either language.

Translation in Digitisation

In my work as a freelancer, I have found more often than not that clients arrive at translation as something of an afterthought. It is frustratingly common to find that they have budgeted neither the time nor the funds required for the work – the deadline tends to be yesterday, and the fee mere pennies. Pleasingly, this is not the case working on this project, where translation has been built into the process from the beginning and is understood to take time, thought, research, and expertise. Moreover, the decision to have an on-site team, working in the same office as the cataloguers, affords a rare opportunity to consult the specialists about their writing when queries inevitably arise, and to reciprocate by sharing our linguistic, cultural, and technical knowledge. We could of course always do more in our efforts to create bi- and multilingual resources for ever wider audiences, and with more and more institutions planning and investing in digitisation, there are deeper and broader questions about how, for whom, and in which languages we do so. Bilinguality has been a vital part of the QDL’s success in opening up the collections to new users and ought to be part of the ongoing discussions in digitisation.

See further:
Copyright:

Banner: Brief Principles of the Arabic Language ‎[F-1-14] (14/184), Qatar National Library, 10680, in Qatar Digital Library. Author: Filippo Guadagnoli. ©Qatar National Library. Usage Terms: Creative Commons Attribution Licence

memoQ Images:  ©memoQ.

QDL Images: ©Qatar National Library. Terms: Creative Commons Attribution Licence