Collective translation of the Encyclopédie

The Encyclopédie Diderot et d’ Alembert is often cited as an early (1750s) beacon of choral authorship (140 contributors) in a traditional European culture largely featuring solo acts. An online version has been available here for some time for paying subscribers only, under the auspices of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the Division of the Humanities, the Division of the Social Sciences, and Electronic Text Services of the University of Chicago.

Now an English version is being stitched together at the University of Chicago as part of the ARTFL project. The translations are, like the original, being carried out as a collective effort. Maybe amateur is the more appropriate adjective:


You don’t have to be an expert translator to contribute to this project, but because it is a collaboration among volunteers, we do not have the resources to edit the translations we receive. We therefore count on contributors to have sufficient command of French, English, and the topic to produce an accurate translation in readable, correct English. Translations can be submitted in either MS-Word or Word Perfect and do not require any special coding.

So far they’ve only managed to translate about 450 of the 72,000 articles that made up the original Encyclopédie. The total base contains 20.8 million tokens (words) or 400,000 types (unique forms), so the average length of an article is only about 300 words. After human translators have completed say 2,000 sizeable articles (c. 600,000 words) maybe someone might be able to prime a translation automation system to manage large chunks of the remaining 70,000 articles. And give a network of students around the world extra credits for post-editing the output.

One nice touch on the website is a facsimile translation of the famous Tree of Knowledge, an attempt to develop an 18th century organon of how knowledge fits together – usually in satisfying triads of categories. But alas, it does not seem to include translating as a fruit hanging from a twig on the ascending Arts of Communicating/Logic/Science of Man/Philosophy/Reason branch.

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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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