Language and translation on Global Voices

David Sasaki has put together a remarkable session on translation at the Global Voices conference. It begins with a conversation led by John “Feng 37” Kennedy in Chinese between the half dozen Chinese speakers in the room, then a five-person conversation in Swahili, led by Ndesanjo Macha, then a lively conversation in Hindi involving about a quarter of the room. David observes that, during each conversation, he saw about half a dozen people smiling, engaged in the conversation, and everyone else ignoring the larger conversation. This is obviously a useful metaphor for some of the challenges we’re seeing at Global Voices – how do we amplify, contextualize and translate conversations from all the languages represented online?

Portnoy Zheng leads a project to translate articles from Global Voices into Chinese. His reason for launching the project was a sense that it was very hard to get relavent international news in the Taiwanese mainstream media. He began translating with a story from Indonesia on Global Voices, talking about a plane crash caused by overloading a plane with durian which killed a number of Indonesian politicians (Durian is an inherently funny fruit, which may explain why Portnoy felt compelled to provide a pan-Asian translation.) After translating about 100 posts, he met Rebecca in Taiwan and decided to formalize the project. There’s now a site – maintained by about 10 translators – which translates a subset of Global Voices articles. There’s no clear guidelines to which ones are included – usually posts that talk about China or north Asia, and often articles about controversy in the Middle East, which Portnoy feels don’t get covered closely enough in Chinese media.

David points out that Global Voices currently translates only a small subset of the languages of the blogosphere – we translate content from Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, French, Arabic, Persian, Mandarin, Russian and occasionally Serbian and Ukranian. In other countries, we neccesarily misrepresent the local conversation, showing off only a few people in the country who happen to be bilingual. He points us to a recent blog post titled “Africa, Global Voices y el anglocentrismo cool”, which argues that if you don’t speak English, you don’t show up on global voices. David’s looking for ways to turn critique like this into involvement – what would be involved with getting the author of this post to help translate GV into Spanish and translate Spanish posts on GV?

David starts outlining some of the questions we’re facing in dealing with translation on GV:
– How do we encourage blogger translation? How do we get more people doing this?
– Do we need permission from bloggers before we start translating their work?
– Should we translate non-English comments into English to encourage conversation?
– Should we let people translate all our posts, using the Indymedia model which allows people to click a tab, choose a language and offer their own translation?

This last question raises the issue “Why isn’t everything put onto the site also put into MediaWiki, letting people translate on the fly?” The simple answer: maybe it should be – we’ve not spent enough time thinking through how to making the site translatable. One of our community editors points out that we have to make very careful decisions about what we translate – it’s an editorial choice as much as the stories we select for the site.

Two suggestions that got widespread applause and enthusiasm:
– finding a way to reward volunteer translators, perhaps with Amazon Rewards dollars or other currency
– making it possible for people to offer their reading of GV posts in translation from a link on the site.

It’s interesting to think about some of the assumptions Rebecca and I made about language when we started building GV two years ago. It was clear to us that we couldn’t build a site in more than one language, and that we weren’t well positioned to translate more than one or two languages. Also, we felt like we were featuring a very specific set of blogs – people who were choosing to write for a global audience, which often meant they were writing in English. But the blogosphere is a very different place two years later, and GVO has grown a great deal – trying to figure out how to accomodate and feature blogs from around the world is one of our major challenges going forwards.

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7 Responses to Language and translation on Global Voices

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Summit 2006, New Delhi at Blogbharti

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Delhi Summit Reflections: We ARE the People of the Year.

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  4. The worldwide lexicon project is about to begin testing a translation service for websites.

    The service monitors a site’s RSS feed, and when it sees new texts, it fetches machine translations for them, and then creates a wiki page for each target language. The website points its readers to the translation service, where anyone can edit or start new translations. The translations are published as RSS feeds, as well as static HTML.

    The project is open source, so anyone is welcome to take our source code and incorporate it into their publishing and content management systems.

    If you’d like to join the beta test email brian{at}mcconnell.net for more information, or visit http://www.worldwidelexicon.org

  5. Pingback: El Oso, El Moreno, and El Abogado » Blog Archive » Around the Global Village

  6. Anton says:

    Hello! Please forgive me if this post is inappropriate, but I couldn’t find a direct email address on your blog. I’m Anton and I’m launching my new blog dealing with language translation issues and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss mutual collaboration. You can contact me if you like at anton [at] icanlocalize {dot} com. Thanks!

  7. Hugh says:

    I think the concept of language differences acting as a barrier in communication between two different language speakers is an extremely interesting one. People lose interest in what they cannot understand much like the Global Voices conference that engaged with separate groups of attendees as various languages were spoken.

    Similarly in business, clients are more engaged when you have the ability to communicate with them in their native language. For this reason we use a language translation agency to translate all our documents when dealing with clients speaking different languages.

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