Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Translation As a Force of Change

One of the things that I have always found interesting about the world of translation is that apart from facilitating global commerce, I see that it also has the potential to be a means to break down walls between cultures and also improve the lives of humans as information starts to flow more freely across languages. Poverty and lack of information are often very closely correlated.This is really powerful, but for the most part the professionals focus on documentation and content that is necessary but not considered especially high value. So who does the world changing stuff?

I tend to think that translation, collaboration and automation are closely related and that great things are possible as these key elements line up.

I wanted to point out some examples of this power already at work. I noticed several articles yesterday on Meedan which is an online meeting place for English and Arabic speakers to share viewpoints. A non-profit service that hopes to foster greater understanding and tolerance, translates content from the Arabic media to English and vice versa. The site uses machine translation, a community to help clean up MT output and already makes 3 million words of translation memory available to enable continuing leverage and encourage new English <> Arabic translation efforts. I met George Weyman last year and I am very happy to see this initiative grow in strength. Apart from being a peacemaker and bridge-builder, George is also a fine tin flute player as this video (starts at 2:28) of an impromptu music jam in an Irish bar shows. I joined them by drumming on the table. In time, I would not be surprised to find that Meedan becomes a model for building dialog elsewhere in the world. 

This meeting happened at the AGIS conference which was focused on building a community and collaboration platform to be able to launch initiatives against information poverty and bring translation assistance to humanitarian causes. Like the Open Translation Tools conference I wrote about earlier, these are fledgling movements that are growing in strength. I would not be surprised to see initiatives like The Rosetta Foundation become a source for more compelling innovation in translation than companies like SDL and other professional industry “leaders”. Collaboration, automation, MT, community management and open source were the focus at AGIS. This is in contrast to the same  localization themes we see repeated endlessly at the larger industry conferences. I would bet that revolution is more likely to come from hungry, motivated “world-changing” mindsets that I saw at AGIS than the professionals reeling under cost cutting from buyers, that we usually see at the major localization conferences. My sense is that people who feel awe can make shit happen.

Recently we also saw the power of collaboration and focused community efforts in Haiti. The following are just a few examples:
Language Lifelines: describes a variety of language industry initiatives to help relief assistance.
GALA setup a site to coordinate language related efforts and Jeff Allen resurrected data that he had worked on at CMU to help Microsoft, Google and others to develop MT solutions that might prove useful to the reconstruction effort.

I was also drawn into a vision that Dion Wiggins, CEO, Asia Online had to translate mostly educational open source content into several South East Asian languages to address the information poverty in the region. Again, the foundation of the effort here is an automated translation platform together with community collaboration and high value content. While this project still has a long way to go, the initial efforts are proof that the concept can work.  There is a growing belief that access to information and knowledge not only raises the lives of those who have access, but  also creates commercial opportunity as more people come online.

We are also seeing that community members (the crowd) can also step up to engage in translation projects, sometimes on a very large scale. While Facebook gets a lot press, I think it is the least interesting of these initiatives as it only focuses on L10N content which probably was best done by professionals anyway. They did prove however, that using crowds is a good way to rapidly expand the language coverage and your global customer base. If they actually extend this to the user content, I think Facebook could become a major force in translation. And again in this case, a management and collaboration infrastructure platform was necessary to enable and manage crowd contribution. I cannot see them extending the translation effort to the real user content without engaging machine translation into the process and flow. Many IT companies have also started to explore crowdsourcing, including Adobe, EMC and Intel and will expand language coverage this way. The professional translation industry should take note that this makes sense for companies to do because “long-tail” languages are not easily done cost effectively through standard channels.
While many in the professional industry comment disparagingly about quality in crowdsourcing translation, there is evidence that it can work quite well. The three best examples I know of are the TED Open Translation project which now has translated almost 5000 speeches into 70 languages using a pool of over 2000 volunteer translators, and the Yeeyan project in China and Global Voices.

The Yeeyan project takes interesting content in English and translates it into Chinese just to share interesting, compelling material. The community involves 8,000 volunteer translators, who’ve created 40,000 translations and collaborate with the Guardian, Time, NY Times and others. This effort got them into some trouble with Chinese censorship regulations but it has already evolved into a platform that employs “translators” and is self funding. 

Global Voices is translated into more than 15 languages by volunteer translators, who have formed the LinguaAdvocacy website and network to help people speak out online in places where their voices are censored. This a truly virtual organization that allows us to hear real voices from around the world. Check out the recently translated articles. There are many more initiatives that I give a shout out to in my Twitter stream.

I believe the professional industry is at a point where they need to understand collaboration, crowdsourcing, automation, MT, and open source. This is both an opportunity and a threat as those who resist these new forces, will likely be marginalized. Microsoft changed the world when they introduced PCs and a much more open IT model while IBM defended mainframes and became much less relevant. At the time, the management at IBM were not able to take a nerdy college dropout named Bill seriously. Maybe because he delivered his software on a single floppy or maybe because he did not wear a tie.  Microsoft in turn was caught completely off guard when Google introduced their much more open, free and cloud based model and became less relevant. This cycle will likely continue as innovation drives change and I predict that Google too will become less dominant in the not so distant future because they have lost the original spirit.

The Economist is also regularly translated into Chinese by a group that calls themselves the Eco Team. The founder had this to say:
"Like the forum name says, producing a Chinese version of The Economist is our goal. But we're still young and immature; very amateur, not professional. So what? Because we are young, we have the fervor, the enthusiasm, the passion. Because we are amateurs, we'll double our efforts to do our best. As long as we wish, we can be successful and do a good job!"

Ethan Zuckerman summarizes the implications of this very nicely. Change is coming to the world of translation, with or without the support and guidance of the professionals.

We are in an age where information is a primary driver of wealth creation. While the initial wave has been focused around English and European languages, this will increasingly shift to languages like Chinese. Social Networks in China are already proving that they can be innovators and leaders in the new digital economy. The value of information and thus of translation will continue to increase, and the understanding that knowledge can bring prosperity will hopefully gain momentum all around the world. I hope that some of us will help make this happen.


  1. Kirti, as always a fascinating post.
    I've never heard of Meedan which seems interesting. I wish someone would do the same for Hebrew and Arabic to finally get them talk with each other.

  2. Ofer

    You should talk to George and find out what it would take to start something. I think he would help and so would I. I think you could find others who want to help. Meedan makes their English <> Arabic TM available so you could start using English as a pivot language.

    It all starts exactly with the kind of wish you state right here.

  3. Would you come and join us at AIGS '10 in Goa, first week of December and present? This is the stuff we need!