Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Translation and the Production of Knowledge in Wikipedia: Chronicling the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Translation and the Production of Knowledge in Wikipedia: Chronicling the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov

Article excerpt

Based on a set of articles about the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov from nine different editions of the encyclopaedia, the article examines the place of translation in Wikipedia and the role it plays in knowledge production. Each of the articles is likely to use a number of different information sources, including other Wikipedia articles that are already in existence, with translation contributing to knowledge production as each new article evolves. The article examines questions of flow, visibility, location, evolution, and point of view to build up a picture of the knowledge development of these interrelated articles.


Little more than two years have passed (at the time of writing) since the brutal and senseless murder at the end of February 2015 of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Russian opposition politician and fighter for democracy. The debate over the circumstances surrounding his murder, its possible motives, and continuing consequences is still running. The pages of Wikipedia reflect this debate and bear witness to the massive and on-going multilingual effort to chronicle and, gradually, to make sense of this shocking act of violence.

In rapid succession, over the course of a few days in February to March 2015, Wikipedia articles documenting this event were created in Russian, Ukrainian, English, Korean, Kazakh, Armenian, Sinhala, and Chinese, followed, a few months later, by one in Czech. While some of these have proved to be essentially static statements, the first three have undergone an intensive, on-going process of meticulous development in which the editors have drawn both text and references from other editions of the online encyclopaedia in order to strengthen the accounts, narratives, and rationalizations that they construct for their respective readerships. This article offers a fine-grained, albeit non-exhaustive, investigation into all nine articles, focusing in particular on the first three, in order to consider the role played by translation in the production of knowledge across the multilingual encyclopaedia. The article commemorates the life and work of Boris Nemtsov.

Translation in Wikipedia

While the multilingual Wikipedia now forms the object of a modest but growing research effort (see Fichman and Hara; Rogers; Zhou, Demidova, and Cristea), the contribution of translation scholars has hitherto been surprisingly limited, despite their discipline's importance for developing a better understanding of how the different editions of the encyclopaedia interrelate, and how knowledge is produced within it and disseminated among its various parts. Fichman and Hara's Global Wikipedia is one of the main sources on the multilingual Wikipedia and covers a wide range of subjects, including news reporting, point of view, knowledge sharing, gender issues, and the handling of controversial topics. The absence of translation-related content from this volume is mirrored in the relative neglect of Wikipedia in translation studies forums. As of April 2017, the Benjamins Translation Studies Bibliography lists only two articles with the word "Wikipedia" in the title: McDonough Dolmaya and Alonso, about Wikipedia translation quality and professional translators' perceptions of the encyclopaedia, respectively (Gambier and van Doorslaer n. pag.). A brief overview of the main features of Wikipedia is thus a necessary first step to illuminate the place of translation in the encyclopaedia, before returning to the specific articles on the murder of Boris Nemtsov.

As I write (in April 2017), there are 295 language editions of Wikipedia (see "List of Wikipedias" n. pag.), which, taken together, rate Wikipedia as the fifth most popular site on the internet ("Alexa" n. pag.). Table 1 summarizes the wide variation in the size and popularity of the nine language editions I focus on in this study:

Table 1
Size and level of popularity of the nine Wikipedia editions
(see "List of Wikipedias" and "Siteviews Analysis")

Edition     Number of Articles    Size      Daily Average
            (April 23, 2017)      Ranking   Page Views
                                            (April 3-22,2017)
English     5,391,226             1         253,598,053
Russian     1,389,277             7         31,244,227
Chinese     937,983               15        11,994,602
Ukrainian   692,384               16        1,568,103
Korean      379,265               25        2,344,726
Czech       378,850               26        2,262,874
Armenian    219,160               36        135,420
Kazakh      218. … 
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