Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

New York Times on Social Translation

Leslie Berlin did a great service to proponents of social translation by featuring a range of online translation efforts in her column for today’s New York Times, titled “A Web That Speaks Your Language“. Not only did she give an overview of some of the important players in the space, she focused on reasons why human approaches to translation are important at a time when people around the world are creating online content in their native languages.

I’ve gotten several email and Facebook messages asking for information on social translation and the idea of “the polyglot internet”. Here are a few references from my blog and around the web for those interested in finding out more about the topic.

The phrase “polyglot internet” comes from an essay I wrote late last year as a thought piece for a discussion in Dubai hosted by the World Economic Forum. I was trying to make the case that we were likely to miss the diversity and nuance of the user-generated web unless we found better ways to translate the variety of languages we’re seeing online. To be a pain in the ass, I turned in a version of the essay translated by Global Voices volunteers into a dozen languages – my colleagues at the WEF weren’t able to print it correctly, because it included a couple of character sets they’d never seen before. (Serves me right).

The Times piece mentions Global Voices Lingua, the community translation arm of Global Voices. Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices, offers a history of the project. I’d note that Lingua, like all these social translation projects, involves a technical aspect as well as dedicated translators and project managers – Lingua owes a real debt of gratitude to Boris Anthony, who built the original architecture that allowed a post translated on one word press blog to “signal” the English-language “master” blog, and to Jeremy Clarke, who’s been maintaining, extending and expanding the code.

The article leads off with a screen shot from TED’s Open Translation project, and quotes June Cohen, who’s championed the use of social translation to make TED’s video content available in dozens, and ultimately hundreds, of languages. June talks about the project in an interview with Newsweek. I wrote about the launch of the Open Translation project a couple of days back, arguing that the model TED is using could be used for any high-quality, compelling internet content. It’s worth mentioning that the TED project is built around dotsub.com, a powerful platform to enable subtitling and translation of web video.

Berlin’s tour of social translation also includes Meedan, an ambitious project that uses machine translation, backed by human translation, to enable dialog between English and Arabic speakers. And she mentions efforts by Google and by WordPress to work with volunteer translators to make software interfaces available in multiple languages.

I’d urge people interested in this topic to look at Pootle, a translation framework developed by Dwayne Bailey, who has dedicated a great deal of time to making open software available in South Africa’s 11 official languages, via translate.org.za. And everyone interested in social translation should be paying close attention to Worldwide Lexicon, an exciting project by Brian McConnell, which invites bilingual and multilingual people to translate texts in sections as small as single sentences or as large as whole articles.

Almost everyone mentioned in this blogpost will be attending the Open Translation Tools Summit hosted by Aspiration in Amsterdam this June. I’ve got high hopes that articles like Berlin’s will get more people interested in participating in these efforts, and that the hard work Allen Gunn at Aspiration and others are doing to bring toolmakers and project leaders together will help build a global movement around the idea of social translation.

2 Responses to “New York Times on Social Translation”

  1. Ethan

    Yes, what is happening in this space with the launch of TED Open Translation will be interesting to watch. Ed Zad of dotSUB will be in Amsterdam. We are beginning to have people with thousands of hours of video in Hindi, Chinese, etc. come to use and want to have it subtitled – there are giant treasure troves of content around the world that have never seen the light of day that hopefully will be soon available for all to view in their native languages.

    Looking forward to continuing to work with Global Voices and Rising Voices.

    Michael Smolens

  2. Don says:

    A couple of comments. First, mention could also be made of FUNREDES’s “Tradauto” system for MT of messages among various languages. The Africa-CS-WSIS and Maaya lists use it for English French. In the PanAfrican Localisation project I tried it for those two languages and Portuguese – as working languages of people translating software and content into African languages. The experience with the latter was encouraging (though I’m admittedly an optimist on MT) but revealed a need for pre- or post-editing to assure quality translations of technical posts.

    FUNREDES is interested in improving on this system. At the same time, might Google’s translation utility for Gmail be adapted for Googlegroups? The point is facilitating email lists’ dynamic communications across working languages.

    The second point is brought (back) to mind by recent news of a high school senior in the US who presented a project at ISEF on improving statistics-based MT. I’ve long thought that we should be finding ways of improving educational offerings in the interface of languages and computers for (high school/lycée & university) students in Africa and other multilingual regions. It’s great that an American student can do something like this, but what about young people in poorer countries who grow up polyglots, exposed to several languages, and then go on to study computer science? They would seem to have the potential to do a lot in cutting edge human language technologies, given some inspiration and training. But this is on no one’s agenda for aid or education there.

    So, beyond tools and meeting immediate needs in terms of translation of web content, blogs, and email traffic, can we focus a bit on how to empower even a small percentage of talented African students to help develop the next generation of MT? Along the way they may find new and exciting ways of using ICT to address longstanding issues related to the linguistic heritage and potential of the continent.

    How can educational aid to Africa incorporate such forward-looking perspectives for ICT? How can experts on translation such as will attend the upcoming workshop lend their talents to so enriching what is offered to African students?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Green Design » Blog Archive » New York Times on Social Translation - [...] This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My Heart's In Accra. [...]
  2. Michael Netzley, CommunicateAsia, corporate communication, Asia, Web 2.0, digital media - [...] Zuckerman discusses the Polyglot Internet and how human effort paired with technology has impacted social translation of the web.  …
  3. Virtual Handouts: Just added! Reflective writing examples | PSI Tutor:Mentor - [...] New York Times on Social Translation (ethanzuckerman.com) [...]
  4. Getting Everybody Talking in a Multilingual Crowd | SMEX: Channeling Advocacy - [...] a follow-up post to the Times article, Ethan Zuckerman, a Global Voices founder and the person who coined the …

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