The British Library

From the personal diaries and letters of British officials to historic scientific manuscripts, fascinating stories are hidden in the British Library’s collection of documents from the Gulf region.

A partnership consisting of the British Library, the Qatar National Library and the Qatar Foundation formed a plan to make these documents available to audiences all over the world for the first time in history through a specialist bilingual website portal. This has allowed researchers and the public to gain an invaluable insight into the history and scientific achievements of the Gulf region.

Transforming Access to Historical Research

In 2010 the British Library and the Qatar Foundation first discussed working together. Their dream was to build a resource that would transform people’s ability to access historical collections held by the British Library.

British Library
This record is made up of 1 map. It was created on 1 Mar 1856. It was written in English. The original is part of the British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers

This involved creating one of the world’s finest information resources and solving a key issue that many historians face – getting access to the material. In the past, academics had to view the documents in a printed catalogue or arrange a time to visit the library in person. The vision was to let them access the information instantly, wherever they are, alongside high-resolution digital images of the archival material.

The project saw thousands of priceless documents digitised and a comprehensive catalogue of translated descriptions and archival information. The documents themselves include India Office records, maps, manuscripts, sound recordings and photographs.

British Library
One of the historical documents undergoing conservation at the British Library

Access for all

It’s not only academics that the portal will benefit. Both institutions are committed to education, and share a vision that the digital library will allow anyone interested in the history of the Gulf to access the documents – whether they are researchers, scholars, school children or the general public.

The digital library holds huge value for people all around the world, with hidden gems including the personal photographs of a pastor based in Karachi during the early part of the 20th century. The collection as whole offers everyone the opportunity to see these documents and gain an insight into their history.

Digitisation is bringing these forgotten stories to life as never before, as well as preserving them for future generations.

Conserving, Re-Cataloguing and Digitising

For all of the institutions involved, the process of uniting the past with the modern world was ground-breaking. With over half a million pages to painstakingly photograph, conserve, re-catalogue and contextualise, the project has resulted in the biggest multi-disciplinary intake of staff in recent history at the British Library.

Qatar Foundation Digital Portal
Qatar Foundation Digital Portal

A large time was spent considering how viewing the archival material would work once digitised. Focus groups of stakeholders from all over the world were employed to provide their insights into the user experience. This formed the basis of what we now call the portal, an image of which appears to the left.

Every detail of the portal, from the ability to zoom in on the original document and see the tiniest detail in complete clarity to the array of search filters, is designed with the user in mind. This increased usability simplifies the research process, enabling academics to read the documents more thoroughly, and consequently, spot things that had not been noticed until now.

The Role Language Plays

K International has a huge amount of experience being involved in producing large public facing campaigns such as this project for the British Library. Recent examples of note include the Olympics, the Census, the Low Emissions Scheme in London and the Visit Britain tourism campaign.

A project with as much historical and educational importance as this requires special care and attention to be applied to the linguistic accuracy and consideration for softer issues such as the tone of voice. Putting a team together involved exploring all Arabic speaking regions of the world to find people with the relevant historical knowledge and language skills capable of working on it. Through testing the content with academics, universities and stakeholders in Qatar, we were able to build terminology lists, glossaries and translation tools which would later form the basis of the process. The focus is to create a process capable of delivering translated content suitable for Arabic speakers, alongside the original English content.

Challenges lay around the diversity of the source material, linking the technologies together and physically producing the translation across multiple regions. Each is briefly addressed in turn.

British Library PM

Diversity in the Source

The age and complexity of the documents, as well as the specialised subjects they cover, means that an expert team, with a vast range of experience in history, geography and politics, as well as an outstanding native command of Arabic, is essential. Due to the uniqueness of the project, even professional translators, who possess the above skills, would struggle without dedicated training.

The initial challenge, therefore, was to find a suitable number of linguists and consultants, who could be trained quickly and brought up to speed. Added to this is the complexity of not knowing what the curators were going to find when they explored the historical material. This meant the capacity of the process needed to be ahead of demand at all times.

Translation Workflow Technology

The translation process is supported by the bespoke technology we’ve developed. Working in collaboration with the British Library content development team, we engineered a process to link the data stored in their Drupal CMS with our translation management system, Tracklingua. This was essential in streamlining the file handling process, keeping the complicated XML file structure intact and ensuring our high levels of quality assurance were maintained.

The translation tools developed for this project sped up the process, improved consistency and lowered total costs. In addition, we also created an online community where translators, reviewers, developers, managers and other stakeholders could raise questions and share information with one another at any time. This has become an invaluable resource and contains thousands of hours of knowledge.

The technology available to the industry was also improved via work we carried out with key suppliers of translation tools. Angela, pictured below, is one of the key technologists who worked on setting up the project. She’s explaining the importance of supporting right to left languages at a linguistic conference and how we provided the necessary solution.

Tracklingua Translation Workflow

Every text segment we translate for this project goes through the same comprehensive process. Initially, it’s cross-referenced against our British Library translation memory, where all previous translations for the client are stored. This is known as ‘pre-translation’ and speeds up the process by matching any identical segments with previous work we’ve carried out.

Next, the segment is translated by a trained, professional translator, before being reviewed, proofread and then given a final check (this includes electronic quality assurance). This section of the project is overseen by our Arabic-speaking Project Manager. She is vital in ensuring all translations, amends and terminology adhere to the client’s agreed glossaries.

Angela at the British Library
Angela Madrid has been instrumental in ensuring the smooth running of the translation aspect of the British Library project
Process for British Library

The entire translation process runs at speeds of hundreds of thousands of words per month. Our bespoke software system, Tracklingua, provides an online method for the British Library’s team to directly request and receive translations, as well as access relevant language resources. This dramatically reduces admin load and makes it easier to keep track of requests when working on a project of this size.

We also have our own development team, which allows us to quickly make minor amendments to the workflow as needed. This has been of great benefit to the client, as the knowledge gained can be used to rapidly roll out additional languages and projects quickly.

Making History Accessible to the World

The British Library’s unique collection of historical information and scientific manuscripts from the Persian Gulf are now well on their way to being digitised. The first phase of the project began in September 2013 and was completed in December 2014. During this period, our team translated millions of words supporting thousands of manuscripts.

The importance of this project goes far beyond just making content available in different languages. The Qatar Digital Library is significant, not because it took so many people, so many hours to create, but because anyone, anywhere in the world can now access, enjoy and learn from this expansive new resource.

Not only will this allow researchers to study material more completely than ever before, but it will allow people around the world to engage with, and learn about, the history and scientific achievements of the Gulf.

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of our team, the British Library and everyone else who has worked on the project. The resulting archive is something we are all incredibly proud of.

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