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Ambitious Terry Pratchett Project to Generate Exciting New Research Opportunities

19 September 2019 – A new project which seeks to digitise Trinity College Dublin’s comprehensive collection of comic fantasy author, Terry Pratchett’s novels and their translations could lead to major new research in literature and translation studies but also in areas such as brain health.

Funded by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute’s Research Incentive Scheme (RIS), Dr James Hadley and Dr Jane Carroll are leading a new project which is being launched in a series of events this month. The Terry Pratchett Project could fundamentally change how researchers engage with a literary collection as they set out on an ambitious project to digitise and analyse the Terry Pratchett collection at Trinity.

Sir Terry Pratchett was a prolific satirist, who in his time wrote over 55 books. Pratchett’s most well-known works, included in the 47-book Discworld series, have been translated into 34 languages. All of these translations are held, along with numerous other works in English in the Trinity College Library collection, which amounts to an estimated 667,800 pages of text.

Having consulted the Pratchett Estate and Pratchett’s literary agent, Colin Smythe, the project is now seeking to engage with Pratchett fans to get a clearer picture of the collection and figure out how to begin constructing a research infrastructure that can hold this large amount of data.

Pratchett in Trinity

One of the UK’s most successful authors, Pratchett is most well-known as a comic fantasy author, explains Dr Jane Carroll. Dr Carroll is the Ussher Assistant Professor in Children’s Literature at Trinity College Dublin. “A lot of his early stuff is satirising high fantasy – people who really love Tolkien and take it very seriously. As he goes on, he drops satirising fantasy and just starts satirising people.”

The collection that is of most interest to the project team in the first instance is the Discworld series, of which the ‘Unseen University’ and other parodical descriptions of university life appear frequently.

Dr Christoph Schmidt-Supprian is a librarian at Trinity College Library where the constantly expanding Terry Pratchett collection currently accounts for around 3000 items. Pratchett’s literary agent is Trinity graduate Colin Smythe who published Pratchett’s first novel The Carpet People. Dr Schmidt-Supprian explains that a close relationship with Trinity began developing in 2008 when Pratchett was awarded an honorary degree. Pratchett, through Colin Smythe, donated a complete back-catalogue of the published translations of his books to Trinity Library in 2009, before going on to take up the position of adjunct Professor of English in 2010.


Dr James Hadley is Trinity’s Ussher Assistant Professor in Literary Translation. On discovering the expansive collection held in Trinity, he felt compelled, along with colleagues, to look much deeper into the possibilities that this collection could produce. An initial call for expressions of interest received an overwhelming response from researchers all around the world, showing that there was the potential to do something ‘truly ground-breaking’, says Dr Hadley.

Hackathon, Saturday 21 September

Dr Jennifer Edmond is also a key partner on the project team. She is co-director of the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities, and as Dr Hadley explains, digital humanities is central to what the project is trying to do with the Pratchett collection at Trinity. “We have this master plan of digitising all the texts so that researchers can come along and see how the syntax and verbs change in different languages, and how from country to country, each book differs.”

On Saturday, 21 September 2019, the team will explore how they can get to grips with the collection held in Trinity, but also with sister collections, held by the University of London’s Senate House Library and Liverpool University. Pratchett fans, as the project team discovered last year when they held their first event around the collection on Culture Night, are central to this process. “We want to establish a symbiotic relationship with the fans”, Dr Schmidt-Supprian underlined.

“The fans have a frighteningly good knowledge of Pratchett’s work and know things that we haven’t thought of”, Dr Carroll added.

They are also asking anyone with an interest in data science, digital humanities, translation studies or library studies to come along, and with the help of their own laptops, participate in some quantitative research on the history of Pratchett’s work around the world.

“What we really want to know is the overlap between the three collections and what exists in the world”, says Dr Hadley referring to the significant Pratchett collections in Senate House and Liverpool University, as well as at Trinity.

An example of citizen science in practice, the project team are hoping that they might be able to release their findings back out into the open web, possibly through the Wikidata site.

As Dr Hadley concludes, however, it’s not just Pratchett for Pratchett’s sake. “We’re trying to come up with an infrastructure which could be copied by similar collections, anywhere really.”

This could be a momentous contribution to knowledge creation, paving a way forward for researchers and generating data that allows scholars to analyse books in a much deeper and intrinsic way, Dr Hadley explains.

Translating Pratchett, 26 September

Dr Carroll says that the major opportunity in comparing foreign language editions of Pratchett’s novels is to see how the very language which defines Pratchett’s genre – satire - can be translated, if at all.

“His books are based so much around British humour and the parodies are built on things that are well-known in British contexts; if you suddenly move that to China, what happens? As it stands, we don’t know”, Dr Carroll comments.

On September the 26th, the Exam Hall in Trinity’s front square will be the meeting point for translators of Pratchett’s works, embassy representatives and of course, the fans. The event will be framed around choosing excerpts from Pratchett’s work and discussing these in the context of how Pratchett is translated into other languages. One of the books they have chosen is Pyramids, which Dr Carroll explains includes a whole series of jokes about English boarding schools. How do you translate the concept of an English boarding school to a different language and culture?

Colin Smythe, who will give an interview along with Pratchett’s assistant Rob Wilkins on Saturday 21st as part of the Hackathon event, has been instrumental in discussing new opportunities for the Pratchett collection with the Pratchett Estate.

Pratchett Translations

In coming to terms with the challenge of digitising the whole corpus of Pratchett’s work, Dr Hadley says that the team is hugely grateful to the Estate, which is incredibly supportive of the project, and may be key to obtaining copyright permissions from all the different publishers, and in helping to obtain already digitised versions of his books.

Pratchett and Dementia, 20 September

Pratchett passed away in March 2015 after suffering from rare early onset Alzheimer's disease. He spoke publicly about living with the disease, and the Pratchett project team is now hoping his writing can be used to continue this important work. Researchers focusing on areas of brain health may be able to use the digital infrastructure of created from his collection to ask whether there are identifiable patterns in his work that may be indicative of Alzheimer’s, even prior to diagnosis.

“This is something that you couldn’t do, no matter how closely you looked at the hard copies of his books. You would need to compare a large number of passages across time, and in a highly technical manner. In practice, this kind of linguistic analysis can only happen with a digital collection”, Dr Hadley commented.

Pratchett’s legacy in supporting research on Alzheimer's disease was one of the reasons that for Culture Night 2018, a Pratchett-themed event looking at his novels, chose to focus on this topic too. This year, for the second year in a row, the Pratchett project will host an event for Culture Night 2019 in the Trinity Long Room Hub on Friday 20th September, where one of the discussions will be focused around Dementia. This will also be the first public event to formally outline the vision of the Terry Pratchett Project.

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