genealogies of knowledge

This presentation was given by Mona Baker, Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester. Mona is a key figure in the field of Translation and I have read and reviewed her core textbook on Translation Methods: In Other Words.

Mona Baker

Mona Baker at MLANG, Cardiff University

This lecture presents ‘Genealogies of Knowledge‘ – ‘The Evolution and Contestation of Concepts Across Time and Space.’ ( @Genofknow) This is a project that started in April 2016 and has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for 4 years at a cost of £1 million. It is a corpora-based study of translations whereby a digital model is built up and records in database format data which comprises these translations which form a critical part of human knowledge. Mona would be giving demonstrations of the software in action, software that can be accessed via the official website of the project at

Four people head up the Genealogies of Knowledge study. In charge of Translations and Classics we have Mona Baker, Luis Pérez Gónzalez and Peter Pormann. Taking care of Computer Science for the project is Saturnino Luz of the University of Edinburgh. Sitting on the advisory board of the project are experts in Politics, Classics, Medieval Studies, French, German, Translation Studies and History. Due to the volume of work that the project entails they could employ twice as many people.

  • Translation is at the centre of the enquiry.
  • Project looks at role in shaping intellectual history – emphasis on politics and science
  • strong historical dimension
  • Emphasis on historical lingua francas – Ancient Greek, Medieval Arabic, Latin and Modern English (primarily but not exclusively as Target Languages.
  • Corpus-based – involves building several types of corpora, in the 4 lingua francas.
  • There weren’t enough people involved in the study to cover the period of history when French was a lingua franca
  • The project takes ‘Slices of Time’
  • There is a strong computational element – involves developing new, freeware software and interfaces
  • Emphasis on visualization, especially of historical processes
  • Builds on, refines and considerably extends pre-existing TEC (Translational English Corpus) software and methodology.

After giving an introduction, Mona went on to demonstrate the software in action, even if it is still very much a work in progress. The Basic Tool of the software is KWIC, a keyword interface.

With the Visualization element critical, the software delivers a Concordance Tree Browser that demonstrates dominant colocates.

There is also a Concordance Mosaic and a Concordance Wordle or Word Cloud.

Strand 1 looks at Evolution / Transformation

Strand 2 looks at Contestation

There are two constellations of concepts, relating to:

  • Body Politic
  • Scientific, Expert Discourse

Important in Strand 1 are:

  • Transmission of Greek thought to Islamic World (Eighth Century – 1oth Century) [Premodern Corpus]
  • Retransmission into Latin directly or via Arabic (11th Century – 13th Century) [Premodern Corpus]
  • Renegotiation of Key Concepts in translations into English (Late 19th Century and throughout 20th Century) [Modern Corpus]

There is an emphasis on transformation and genealogy. Retranslations are key, with added attention to recensions (critical revisions) and commentaries.

Important in Strand 2, The Contestation of Concepts, are:

  • Focus on English as a global vehicle of translation – Timeframe: Late 2oth Century, Early 21st Century
  • Sources: Digital, internet material (Open Democracy, The Nation, ROAR, Left Flank)

Mona gave an example of a passage of Thucydides’ History that had been translated by Charles Foster Smith in 1919 and also Thomas Hobbes in 1629. The 1919 version is a good example of a critical revision.

Mona talked about her own Corpus-based analysis of evidence in Medical journal articles published in the 1980s. At that time there was a tendency of null hypotheses whereby journals sought out ‘No Evidence’. There was a medical need to eliminate evidence, part of the medical culture of the time. Nowadays, there has been a paradigm shift and in journals there is a need to show that ‘Evidence is Present’.

One of the challenges of the Genealogies project was how to negotiate how to do research between different disciplines.

Definition of Translation:

  • Translation
  • Retranslations
  • Commentaries
  • Critical Editions

The researchers has to find manuscripts and somehow insert them into the Corpus. To discover original manuscripts in order for this the £1 million budget would only allow for maybe 2-3 to be turned into critical editions. This was obviously not possible.

There had to be some decision taken on which translations to process. An example of a debate could be the high frequency of Abd Al-Rahman Badawi works. To the classicists, they were very critical of Badawi’s translations. However, his works are often used in universities and this was enough to warrant his inclusion in the Corpus.

It was reluctantly agreed, they weren’t there to argue. If published it’s in (for Modern English).

To classicists another problem arose – in the dating of a work. ‘How certain are you that it was published by that author in that year?’ is a question that arouses some uncertainty amongst classicists.

There was the dilemma of approaching publishers to apply for copyright. But to large houses such as Penguin, they are used to systematically turning down any request. Although multiple publishers are online, there is, in general, a tendency for publishers to be absolutely paranoid about open access.

Mona Baker

Mona Baker at MLANG, Cardiff University

Taking another look at the software, it can be easily downloaded as a Java program from the official website. There is still an ongoing issue with the programming of Arabic, which takes the developers a lot more time, so, at present, it has yet to be included. The software is very much still under development. It is open source software, free to download and it can be adapted on condition that the adaptations are also released as open source.

As an example, Mona inputted ‘Democracy‘ into the software. A concordance was processed and the most popular colocation can be seen to be ‘liberal democracy‘.

To sum up the lecture, Mona reveals many of the interdisciplinary challenges that have faced the Genealogies of Knowledge project. It is extremely stimulating but can equally be very frustrating. It takes corpus-based studies in a new direction, moving things beyond the linguistic focus.

I felt enlightened by Mona Baker’s presentation of the project and although when I asked the question as to the commercial applications of the project she couldn’t see how it could be used to make money, it is clear that it is a very worthwhile intellectual venture that will be of value to future researchers in all fields of the disciplines that are covered. I shall be tracking the project with interest as it develops over the next few years.