How I obtained some great data after creating a lot more work for myself

I have been very lax at updating this year. I would apologise, but I’m essentially writing this blog for myself, so I’ve only myself to be disappointed by. Anyway, on with the rest…

After my Upgrade, I started planning how to embark on some actual tailored original research. I planned I would need a research trip to Denmark to visit the national State Archives to see what I could uncover there about the decisions made by a key state agency – the Danish Arts Foundation – around the grants offered for translators (and perhaps authors). I discussed my plans with a contact at the Arts Foundation who suggested I meet with some of the key decision-makers themselves and interview them about their work. What an opportunity! The meetings were scheduled for the end of April. But then came the paperwork, and this dull but nonetheless important facet of the project is what I’m documenting here. NB for any newcomers: This is all obviously applicable in the UK (where my research is based and therefore where my ethics approval requirements had to be met) but data protection, copyright law, etc differ slightly around the world.

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Copenhagen in late April – my ‘commute’

My university – as all universities, I imagine – requires Ethics Approval for any research involving human participants. This could mean submitting a full ethics application for something as seemingly simple as a face-to-face survey of students on campus, or even perhaps any (non-anonymous) online questionnaires, as well as all the obvious scenarios that come to mind involving medical trials or sociological experiments.

So now I intended that my research would involve interviewing in person, one-on-one (or in fact one-on-many in one case). I intended to record the interviews using a digital audio recorder. Potentially a straightforward case, but I still had to complete and submit the ethics application form correctly and gain official approval from the chair of the university’s research ethics committee before embarking on any interviews. My ethics application form had to be approved and signed by my lead supervisor and Head of Department. My lead supervisor also had to use the university’s system to undergo a risk assessment. As part of the application I had to ensure I had appropriate information sheets and consent forms for the interviewees, and this was the part that took the most research to get right, but ultimately ensured I understood why the ethics application was an important part of the process. Incidentally, as you can imagine, this process took much longer than I initially anticipated, probably a few weeks or so piecing everything together!

Interesting aspects I had to work out:

Data protection

Data protection is to protect individual’s privacy; their right to a private life. That’s the privacy of the person being interviewed, but also of anyone else being discussed. To start off, I had to register my project with the university’s Data Protection Officer (an online process) and assure them that my audio files would be backed up to the university’s secure servers as soon as practical, and deleted from recording devices asap. It’s crap data protection if any ol’ person can find and listen to the raw recordings.

My plan was to interview people about their job role in their workplace, which on the surface should not present any data protection issues – after all, information about their job title etc is in the public domain, and we would not need to discuss personal or confidential matters. On the consent forms, I covered myself with the following statement, which demonstrates the reading up and subsequent thought process I had to go through when considering data protection (however in hindsight, it probably should have been slightly extended to explicitly cover ‘any personal data about you or anybody else‘):

Data will be held about the your name, job title, professional contact details, and the place and time of the interview. Interviews will be about the your work and therefore no personal data will be intentionally recorded, for instance I will not request information about your age, ethnicity, sexuality, and personal contact details. If any such personal data is inadvertently discussed during the interview, I will ensure it remains confidential by omitting it from the final report, unless I gain express permission from you to submit the full unedited transcript in my final report.

In the event, there was only one very minor occasion during the five interviews where I will have to adhere to this statement, and it makes for an interesting demonstration of why this stuff is important. In idle conversation towards the end of the meeting, the interviewer and I were chatting about {a person} and how we established that {the person} had probably lived in {a country} for a while on the basis that {the person} had had {a child or children} in {that country}. This part of the interview I will simply omit from the eventual transcript as it is not directly relevant for my research nor is it appropriate to to include such personal information when that person was not in the room to consent to this information being shared. Of course, this is only the kind of personal information that would naturally be shared all the time in conversation between two colleagues (e.g. me and the interviewee), but things get complicated once it’s recorded, and it’s not okay to reproduce this kind of conjecture about someone’s personal or family life, even if you think that the subject of discussion probably wouldn’t mind one jot! In addition, the more I think about this issue, I (and others, I’m sure) have concluded that it’s better to simply redact anything that might be considered personal information as it is risky, not to mention unfair to those involved, to break data protection protocol. Heck, even my heavily redacted statement up there makes me nervous as it is borderline identifiable in my opinion – it is near impossible to ensure anonymity in the very small field in which I am studying!

Copyright

Again, a line on my consent forms does the talking here:

Copyright of the audio recording and eventual written transcript is jointly held between the interviewer and interviewee. In this case the researcher kindly requests that the interviewee agrees to transfer copyright to the researcher in order that the recording and transcript can be used for other related purposes, for instance academic journal articles or conference presentations. You can request to be consulted on every occasion this material is used outside the remit of this PhD research project, and the researcher will endeavour to do this.

Copyright is an important consideration as a researcher. I plan to transcribe most of the interviews for my PhD thesis, so I could have just gained consent to use the material for this purpose alone. But perhaps I’d also like to submit them in whole or part as part of journal articles or even book chapters. I don’t actually know yet, but I do know that if I hadn’t got express permission – a transfer of copyright, no less – from the interviewee at the time of interview, it would have been a hell of a lot more complicated to use the material in any other form in a year or so’s time. Maybe I’d even have to contact them again back-and-forth for some sort of permission, which looks less than professional and risks them overthinking it and withdrawing consent. My last line was to cover this kind of hesitation or reluctance (of which there was none, but you never can tell beforehand); no one has opted to be kept informed so far.

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Gaining consent in practice

I presented the information sheets and consent forms to interviewees at the start of our meeting. The participants kept the information sheet and one copy of the consent form for themselves; I have a signed and dated copy of the consent form from every person I recorded. None of the participants sat and read through both sheets word-for-word, but all had a skimread and broadly understood the purpose of the consent form – I explained it was necessary because I was recording the interview. Everyone was speaking to me in a professional capacity and they had already received information via email about the purpose and scope of the meeting, so really it wasn’t necessary for them to read all the information in depth as they consented by agreeing to attend the meeting, and as conversation got warmed up we always got round to discussing my research project and the purpose of this specific research trip anyway. I’m not trying to deflect accusations that ‘no one reads these things anyway before signing’ (because they did albeit briefly!), but it is just to reflect that it was a necessary formality that did not stilt the conversation – in fact, it provided a useful opener for me to discuss what was about to happen and make switching on the recording device a little less awkward – and it provided me with paperwork that ensures I can use the data in a different form in future, beyond the boundaries of my thesis.

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense…

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Mini one-day guide to Copenhagen for n00bs

I recently got this email out of the blue (identifying details removed, natch):

Subject: Copenhagen Recommendations?

Hi Ellen,

I hope you’re well. I saw your business card up on the notice board in the work hub saying that you’re a Danish translator.

Just wanted to see if you have any recommendations for what to see in Copenhagen. I’m going there on Thursday only for a day to a conference and it’s my first time I’m going to Denmark so I’m really looking forward to it.

Any tips for Copenhagen would be appreciated!

Now, I have never lived in Copenhagen, but I’ve visited on many occasions, and if you were to ask me what I did the last few times I was there the answer would genuinely be that I made the most of the time alone by chilling in my hotel room with pastries, occasionally going on the hunt for good vegetarian food (hunt is the right word).

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But this was a nice challenge. What would a Londoner with no experience of Denmark want from Copenhagen? How could I tell a stranger how to make best use (not even all of) one day there?

My reply:

Copenhagen is pretty compact and very walkable, so you’ll be able to wander and explore a lot, depending on how much free time you have of course!

Strøget is the main shopping street, it’s pedestrianised and runs from the town hall square (Rådhushaven) to the square by the theatre/the harbour (Kongens Nytorv). Incidentally there is massive construction work going on in both those squares (expanding the metro) so they aren’t very picturesque! You’ll mostly find high street shops on Strøget – the same as you’d find in London – so you might want to explore the streets parallel, for example Studiestræde and Læderstræde. You’re lucky as Thursday evening is usually ‘late night shopping’ meaning many shops which usually close at 5pm will stay open til 8 or 9pm. Nyhavn (on the other side of Kongens Nytorv) is the brightly-coloured harbour area with lots of pubs which you see in lots of postcards of Copenhagen. If you walk to the end of Nyhavn there is lovely view of the Opera House across the water, and then if you walk up with the water on your right you’ll reach Amelienborg (the royal residence). Walking through Kongens Have (a landscaped park with a view of Rosenborg castle [pictured above]) to the National Museum of Art (Statens Museum for Kunst) is lovely. If the weather is awful and you’ve had enough of being outdoors, the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) actually has a fascinating exhibition on the history of modern Denmark. Both those museums are free. You might need to check out these places on Google maps, I’m not necessarily listing in the right order! But that’s a rundown of the sights I can remember.

Best takeaway coffee is from Joe and the Juice, there are lots of them around. They do good sandwiches too, actually. A great bakery chain is called Lagekagehuset, there is one near the town hall end of Strøget and one at the main train station for example, so definitely get a Danish pastry or two from there! There’s one in the airport too – a few weeks ago when I visited I brought home some pastries for my partner, that’s a good souvenir! For other souvenirs, as you don’t have much time I’d recommend the department store Magasin du Nord (near Kongens Nyhavn) – the basement has foodie stuff (posh liquorice is very ‘in’ at the moment!) and the kitchenwares/lighting floor has a sort of trinket section with some lovely Danish design (I’ve bought some lovely mugs there as presents) and the kids clothing section is full of Danish designers too. By the way you can pay almost everywhere with a credit card so don’t worry too much about getting too many kroner in cash.

I’ll let my out-of-the-blue correspondent’s words round off the post:

Amazing! Thank you so much for this incredibly detailed description. You should really publish this as a tour guide!

Your wish is my command, stranger.

Books without baby in Copenhagen (again!)

I’m in Copenhagen for the Book Fair (BogForum) and the related programme of networking events for translators hosted by the Danish Arts Foundation. This year I’m even chairing a meeting for Danish-English literary translators (as part of my PhD I’ve been helping establish a network for translators).

This trip seems very symbolic to me as a marker of how far I’ve come since enrolling on my PhD last September. Last November’s trip to Copenhagen was my first overnight stay (4 nights, in fact!) away from my first-born. She was still breastfeeding so every morning while I was away I expressed some milk (for my comfort). It felt like a curious thing to be doing, waking up early and performing something so intrinsic to being a mother yet so far from home. When I returned we carried on for a couple more months.

This year and last year I undertook the same seismic shift from all-day childcare duties to being alone in a familiar foreign city within a few hours. The time alone was exhilarating, I got so much done every day and revelled in having the freedom to do what I pleased. My first blog post was about that trip, the sense of joy is tangible.

Now my daughter has just turned 2, it feels very different on a personal level. The context has changed. In my everyday life it feels like I get a little more time to myself, and taking care of her feels much less all-consuming than a year ago. Of course it’s still exhausting at times, but my PhD research has crept into the gaps in my days and my mind more and more. I’ve had many more nights away from her, mostly on trips related to my research. This trip to Copenhagen I have the headspace to feel a bit more like my “normal” self: nervous of having to speak a foreign language I hardly get opportunity to speak any more, nervous of the various events ahead of me this week… it feels less like a holiday than last year.

I’m worried the toddler will be more acutely aware that I’m gone, but she doesn’t yet have a great grasp of time and place so I doubt it’ll concern her, she’ll just be curious. I told her I’m going on a plane. She thinks planes are very, very small (she has only seen them in the air, far away!). We’re very lucky to have her wonderful grandparents taking care of her for two days, and my equally wonderful partner/her dad for the following two days, so she’ll have a great time. I’d like him to experience one of my more mundane days while I’m away doing something atypical – a morning at playgroup, for instance!

Wonderful Copenhagen

I am just starting a PhD in Danish-English Translation Studies, looking at the contemporary marketing and reception of Danish literature in the United Kingdom. Rather than write a blog post about everything I’ve done so far, I’ll start with what’s foremost in my mind right now – my recent trip to Denmark.

Borgen

Borgen

Last week I attended the Copenhagen Book Fair (BogForum), and took part in the translators’ programme (oversætterbesøgsprogrammet) hosted by the Danish Agency for Culture (Kulturstyrelsen), who are funding my PhD studentship. I am not a literary translator – although it is an area that interests me, and I have done some commercial translation – so I wasn’t sure how I’d find the whole experience. As it turned out, the visit was incredibly beneficial, in many ways.

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Primarily, I enjoyed meeting translators from different parts of the world. We all conversed in Danish (though it soon became apparent that nearly all translators who speak Danish also speak English! For some reason this had never occurred to me). It was really good to dive straight into speaking Danish again, it feels very natural when in Denmark and of course it’s so hard to keep it up when at home in London. I haven’t spoken Danish regularly in, well… probably since my final year of my BA in 2008, despite the MA in Translation Studies following straight after! It was also an excellent opportunity to meet and talk with Danish-English translators as many of them have worked on the titles I will be discussing in my research.

Politigården

Politigården

The programme featured some excellent events, including pitches with Danish publishers and literary agencies (great insight for me as someone who is not very familiar with the publishing industry), a meal at Christiansborg (the Danish parliament aka Borgen), a tour of the central police station (useful for translators of crime fiction but open to all participants!). Everyone involved was incredibly warm and welcoming, it was lovely to meet people from Kulturstyrelsen so soon into my research. I have been tasked with setting up a more formal Danish-English literary translators’ network, so I’m glad I had some useful conversations with Danish translators from Germany and Russia who coordinate similar networks. I was also able to have a rather lovely lunch meeting with one of my PhD supervisors (who currently lives in Copenhagen).

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The BogForum was fascinating. I’ll qualify that by saying it was the first book fair I’d attended! But I observed that there were many more families and little children than I’d expected, and it was clearly a cultural event not just a commercial schmooze-fest. It’ll be interesting to contrast it with the equivalent in London and maybe other places in future. To see a literary culture flourishing in a country where bestselling paperbacks cost at least double the average price in the UK is really something.

I must admit I was nervous before I went. The baby has only just turned one and we’re still breastfeeding – thankfully only once or twice a day, but we still had to think about the practicalities of that. We jumped straight from me never having left her overnight to being away for 4 days/nights in a row! But we were both fine, of course. In fact, the hotel was lovely and I rather relished being able to wake up at a time of my choosing to a breakfast someone had made for me and being able to potter around doing my own thing. I also wasn’t sure if I would ‘fit in’ with the events as a PhD student (as opposed to a full-time literary translator), but my fears about that were soon allayed.

So, I emerged at the end of the trip feeling both happier about my linguistic aptitude and very ‘at home’ in this area of research. Incredibly grateful for the financial and practical support from Kulturstyrelsen too. Now I just need to keep up the momentum!