Crowdsourcing translation

At SXSW this year there was a lot of talk about internationalization and global web design. One recurrent theme debated in panels such as Taking Over the World: the Flickr Way, Lost in Translation? Top Website Internationalization Lessons and Glenda Sim’s and my core conversation on Global Design: Web Sites for the World was the issue of translation. The main problem being how to source, quality assure and fund good translation that talks to people rather than alienates people. The recurrent solution in all three sessions was to crowdsource translation.

Wikipedia describes crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call”. This is an approach which is very similar to how Wikepedia itself crowdsources content. In the context of translation of a website this means simply inviting your users to offer translations of your templates and content.Large corporates, small companies or organisations all face the problem of translation. Even when there is a budget for translation there is often still an issue of quality control. One organisation I spoke to said that all translated text could only be published on their site once it had gone though four rounds of edits. Costly both in time and man hours. The reason for such extensive edits was to ensure that translated text was checked for literal translations that were out of context. A couple of the stranger examples given were”crowded camp” instead of “concentration camp” and “Enter” written in a sexually suggestive way in Russian for a submit button.

So when does crowdsourcing translation work? In the corporate world this is unlikely to be a huge hit for a number of reasons. Firstly it may not be the route that a large organisation wants to go down as they may have a strong house style and brand that needs to be stuck to. The bigger issue, to my mind at least however, is that people are going to be less likely to want to offer translations of sites such as these as they have no real stake hold in the sites and typically are not emotionally invested in these sites.

Crowdsourcing really comes into it’s own when you think of it in a social networking context. Sites such as Flickr, Facebook and WordPress have communities of users that are hugely passionate about what they consider to be their sites given that content is contributed to and generated by themselves. They therefore have a real interest in feeding into the translation process.

Facebook openly crowdsources translation by rolling out a loose translation of the site (some have claimed by using Babelfish) and then letting the users do the rest. Indeed the final French version of the site was rolled out on Sunday 9th March and almost immediately I spotted this status update from a French friend of mine: “Frederique is trying out facebook in French and is having a good laugh”. Facebook would do well to get her feedback as she is a translator by trade and has worked on translating series such as Sex in the City and now translates games. You can’t really get much better than that!

Crowdsourcing translation for blogs also fascinates me. I love the idea that a reader spots a post that resonates and inspires them and then goes to translate it. There are a number of plugins that the humble blogger can use to support translation of their own content. Worldwide Lexicon is a site that supports collaborative translation and has a plugin for WordPress: the plugin enables your readers and volunteers to view, create and edit translations to any languages they speak. This is something I’m definitely going to try out.

So what do you think? Is crowdsourcing translation the way to go for you?

Finally if you weren’t able to make it to SXSW you’ll be able to catch some of the panel discussions podcasted via the SXSW site. I’ll be posting about these together with any slides made available as they get published.

19 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing translation

  1. What is the motivation for people who crowdsource? How did facebook get the people of France to translate their website for free? Is there something more that gets people to participate

  2. Hi Josh,
    That’s a good question and I can only give my take on it really. I think with social networking sites such as Facebook, Flickr, MySpace and so on that people feel like they “own” it anyway. It’s almost like you lease a space, just as you would in the physical world. It’s your online presence that you invite your friends and acquaintances over to so you have a stakehold in making it look and feel how you want it.
    Thanks to social networking and the rise of user generated content people are very comfortable customising, creating and amending content online and I see translation as part of that. After all if you see something translated badly on a site you use everyday wouldn’t you want to change it?
    It’s all about communities building and establishing themselves and more often than not, when it comes to crowdsourcing translation, it’s not like the individual translates it all but becomes part of the process of translating it. Not only does a website owner get a better translated site but also builds up loyalty and participation in the site’s development. This is why I can’t see crowdsourcing ever working for a corporate site.

    I’m interested to know why you ask the question? Is there a project that you are working on that is relevant to this?

  3. I’ve been trying to figure this one out too. I agree with you when yous ay this probably wouldn’t work for a corporate site, but what about Research papers and articles?

    Most of the world’s peer reviewed research base is held in the language of the original paper; usually that’s English.

    If one was to take Scientific, Technical and Medical papers out of the equation – leaving Social Sciences (History, Management, Economics and so on) could crowdsourcing work? Is it possible to mobilize a non-english student/research community to translate the papers into their local language? This has a great benefit to the students, the research community and society at large.

    Many of my editors express concern over quality and mis-interpretation but I’m not so sure…

  4. That’s an interesting question Paul and one I don’t have teh answer too. There were many people who were sceptical about Wikipedia and yet that has been an unprecedented success and one that’s worth referencing I guess.

    When it comes to translation there is of course an additional level of concern about quality control but I think teh very fact that many can tweak and change it is a positive rather than a negative. I wonder if there are any examples out there that anyone knows of?

    I’m all for trying these things. It’s low cost, financially or otherwise, and you have everything to gain if it does work out so why not, I say go for it!

  5. I don’t know if you’d call what we do crowdsourcing or not, as it’s paid for rather than free – but we provide a good alternative for real businesses who need translation and don’t want to pay the prices of a traditional agency.

    We’re currently working hard on expanding our service to work much more seamlessly with people’s web applications.

  6. I feel the reason most people get on and translate for free has to do with a sense of accomplishment. They can show their friends/colleagues what they have done and feel like they were published. Also as a way to make somewhat of a resume, showing prospective employers this is what I have done. That is my 2 cents on the matter.

  7. Hi Trevor – I think you’re right there, the feeling of accomplishment and contributing to something is always a bit of a driver.

    As part of our work translating the Web Standards Project Interact Curriculum I’ve been really impressed with not only the International Liaison Groups speed to volunteer time but also many, many people I’ve spoken to over Twitter.

    It is an amazing body of work to contribute to and will be a case study in crowdsourcing once it’s done.

  8. Crowdsourcing translation doesn’t always mean “free translation”. I happened to visit a website days ago, an online translation website with crowdsourcing model, while it’s designed to have the translators be paid when working collaboratively. I will keep a close eye on this website.

  9. cant seem to find a good site where you get a good picture painted of what the crowd profileshould be for translation crowd sourcing….do you happen to know one?

  10. I doubt if any kind of crowdsourced editorial work will catch on in any genuinely effective way without compensation, or the perception of compensation. I think that a lottery is the only way, with payers bidding for a place in a work queue to fund a lottery, which typists would then attempt to win by typing to achieve keystroke-consensus with others. One or more such keystrokes would be selected at random to win. I’ve written a Knol article (Google: Keystroke Lotteries) in which I go into greater detail. Basically, people could type as little or as much as their own time would allow — tiny bits of time, tiny bits of work, tiny chance to win both large and small amounts of money. Tiny chances are what you now have when you pay cash for a ticket. The difference now is simply that you wouldn’t pay cash.

  11. I’m not so confident in crowdsourcing translations. Sure, if you have Facebook to translate, people will do it carefully and correct each other if there are some problems, but for more “classic” projects, I’d have doubts translators would give it their best when there is no pressure or money involved. Not to mention consistency issues when several people work on the same files…

  12. Agreed, hence mentioning that I can’t see it working for corporate sites etc and it working better in a social networking context. Great if you can get it to work for you though 🙂

  13. anyways, great reading.

    @Eyelid Surgery, I’m not sure it’s still actual, even not sure you’ll get this info but I was using when crowdsourcing localization of my app. Maybe will be useful to others

  14. I am interested in finding a site to share my book translation project with. It should be available in China and the US.

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