… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

October 31, 2008

The Polyglot Internet

Filed under: — Ethan @ 5:06 pm

Prepared for the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet by Ethan Zuckerman, October 30, 2008

The first wave of the Internet revolution changed expectations about the availability of information. Information that was stored in libraries, locked in government vaults or available only to subscribers was suddenly accessible to anyone with an internet connection. A second wave has changed expectations about who creates information online. Tens of millions of people are contributing content to the modern Internet, publishing photos, videos and blogposts to a global audience.

The globalization of the Internet has brought connectivity to almost 1.3 billion people. The Internet that results from globalization and user-authorship is profoundly polyglot. Wikipedia is now available in more than 210 languages, which implies that there are communities capable of authoring content in those tongues. Weblog search engine Technorati sees at least as many blogposts in Japanese as in English, and some scholars speculate that there may be as much Chinese content created on sites like Sina and QQ as on all English-language blogs combined.

A user who joins the Internet today is far more likely to encounter content in her own language than had she joined ten years ago. But each internet user is able to participate in a smaller percentage of the total interactions and conversations than an English-speaking internet user could in 1997 when English was the dominant language of the net.

There’s a danger of linguistic isolation in today’s internet. In an earlier, English-dominated internet, users were often forced to cross linguistic barriers and interact in a common language to share ideas with a wider audience. In today’s internet, there’s more opportunity for Portuguese, Chinese, or Arabic speakers to interact with one another, and perhaps less incentive to interact with speakers of other languages. This in turn may fulfill some of the predictions put forth by those who see the Internet acting as an echo-chamber for like-minded voices, not as a powerful tool to encourage interaction and understanding across barriers of nation, language and culture.

For the the Internet to fulfill its most ambitious promises, we need to recognize translation as one of the core challenges to an open, shared and collectively governed internet. Many of us share a vision of the Internet as a place where the good ideas of any person in any country can influence thought and opinion around the world. This vision can only be realized if we accept the challenge of a polyglot internet and build tools and systems to bridge and translate between the hundreds of languages represented online.

Machine translation will not solve all our problems. While machine translation systems continue to improve, they are well below the quality threshold necessary to enable readers to participate in conversations and debates with speakers of another languages. The best machine translation systems still have difficulty with colloquial and informal language, and are most reliable in translating between romance languages. The dream of a system that creates fully-automated, high-quality translations in important language pairs like English/Hindi still appears long off.

While there is profound need to continue improving machine translation, we also need to focus on enabling and empowering human translators. Professional translation continues to be the gold standard for the translation of critical documents. But these methods are too expensive to be used by web surfers simply interested in understanding what peers in China or Colombia are discussing and participating in these discussions.

The polyglot internet demands that we explore the possibility and power of distributed human translation. Hundreds of millions of internet users speak multiple languages; some percentage of these users are capable of translating between these. These users could be the backbone of a powerful, distributed peer production system able to tackle the audacious task of translating the internet.

We are at the very early stages of the emergence of a new model for translation of online content – “peer production” models of translation. Yochai Benkler uses the term “peer production” to describe new ways of organizing collaborative projects beyond conventional arrangements like corporate firms. Individuals have a variety of motives for participation in translation projects, sometimes motivated by an explicit interest in building intercultural bridges, sometimes by fiscal reward or personal pride. In the same way that open source software is built by programmers fueled both by personal passion and by support from multinational corporations, we need a model for peer production translation that enables multiple actors and motivations.

To translate the internet, we need both tools and communities. Open source translation memories will allow translators to share work with collaborators around the world; translation marketplaces will let translators and readers find each other through a system like Mechanical Turk enhanced with reputation metrics; browser tools will let readers seamlessly translate pages into the highest-quality version available and request future human translations. Making these tools useful requires building large, passionate communities committed to bridging in a polyglot web, to preserving smaller languages and to making tools and knowledge accessible to a global audience.

If we do not address the problems of the polyglot internet, we introduce another possible way our shared internet can fragment. There are competing – and likely incompatible – visions for future governance of the internet. As the internet becomes less of a global, shared space and more of a Chinese or Arabic or English space, we lose incentives to work together on common, compatible frameworks and protocols. We face the real possibility of the internet becoming multiple internets, divided first by languages, but later by values, norms and protocols.

The internet is the most powerful tool created by humans to allow connection, collaboration and understanding between people of different nations, races and cultures. For the internet to reach its potential in bridging human differences, we need to make the problems of language and translation center to our conversations about the future of the internet.

50 Comments »

  1. […] all those languages are well represented on the Internet. Wonder what you’re missing? Me too. So I’ll link to an English version as well, in case you’re […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » The polyglot internet — November 1, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  2. You nailed it, again.
    Many thanks, Ethan.

    Comment by jose murilo — November 1, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Great essay, and it sparked me to consider one unavailable opportunity — taking advantage of the Google Books Search settlement, at http://snurl.com/4xw20 [blogs_lib_berkeley_edu] . The blog discusses the possibility of creating multiple rough machine translations of the Google Book Search content for search and discovery (as opposed to presuming the ability to create new authorized translations without the rightsholders’ permissions).

    Comment by Peter Brantley — November 2, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  4. […] Fractures are slightly more subtle. They’re issues that if left unchecked might cause the single, unified internet we know and love to split into multiple internets. These include incompatibilities between the mobile and wired web, the immobility of content trapped in the “walled gardens” of companies like Facebook which make it challenging to migrate content, as well as more social issues, like the fragmentation of public space online (the possibility of echo chambers ala Cass Sunstein) and the danger of fragmentation by language, culture and local laws, my current obsession. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » The weekend in Dubai — November 10, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  5. […] “Svetskog ekonomskog foruma” (World Economic Forum). On navodi da je Internet prvo omogućio dostupnost znanja a zatim promenio autore informacija jer su alati za objavljivanje postali […]

    Pingback by Web novinarstvo » Nova era veb-komunikacije u kojoj će Internet postati poliglota — November 12, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

  6. […] Zuckerman’s culture- and language-driven splintered Internet, or […]

    Pingback by What Trend Is the Biggest Threat to the Future of the Internet? | Blurring Borders — January 2, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

  7. do you think that maybe images, i mean photographs & videos, will gain then more and more place?

    Comment by gabyd — January 24, 2009 @ 5:33 am

  8. […] across an essay by Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard called The Polyglot Internet in which he discusses the problems of machine translation (see previous post) and the danger of […]

    Pingback by Dominique Lowell · Bringing order to chaos — February 4, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  9. […] Of course, TED now reaches far more than the people who can come to the conferences. TED Talks on video have reached millions of viewers, and they’re going o reach even more, as June Cohen announces that TED Talks will now have subtitles in 25 languages, including Hindi, Swahili and Tamil. The exciting next step is allowing open translation, which will let anyone translate talks into any language – a wonderful approach to buiding bridges in the polyglot internet. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Thelma Golden - freestyle, frequency, flow — February 6, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  10. […] are others who have eloquently stated the need for this, e.g. here and here. These thoughts are being echoed across the globe and it is likely, that the change agents […]

    Pingback by Inter-professional Dialogue: Kirti Vashee About the Future of Translation/MT….. Diálogo interprofesional: Kirti Vashee sobre el futuro de la traducción/TA « Lapsus translinguae — March 17, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  11. […] I am looking forward to seeing how far we’ve come since 2007. Global Voices Lingua translation has expanded tremendously under the leadership of Leonard and Portnoy. Meedan is starting to really get going. dotSUB has partnered with TED to make their talks available in multiple languages. And perhaps most exciting of all is this news from Chris Salzberg about a new tool called Minna no Honyaku which will soon be released as open source code with the aim of translating as much online content as possible. Why translate as much online content as possible? Ethan Zuckerman makes a good argument. […]

    Pingback by El Oso » Archive » Upcoming: Human Rights, Liberians in NYC, Lullabies in Argentina, OLPC Uruguay, Voces Bolivianas, Community News, Collaborative Translation, and Digital Transformation — May 1, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  12. […] been thinking a lot about social translation over the past few years. Language, after all, is the most difficult and most time-consuming barrier standing in the way of global conversation. Chris Salzberg, who just recently published his Ph.D. […]

    Pingback by El Oso » Archive » Social Translation and Fan Culture — May 8, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  13. […] The idea for a translation exchange as a parallel and complimentary project to Lingua began in response to the larger challenge of the polyglot internet: that, with over 1.3 billion Internet users, any one of us is only seeing a small slice of existing content, based on our language capacities. Ethan Zuckerman captures the phenomenon in this post – and in its English translation. […]

    Pingback by Global Voices Online » Global: the polyglot internet and translation exchange — May 11, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  14. […] of news and information across multiple languages to support the polyglot Internet – read this post by Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman for background. The specific objectives are to research […]

    Pingback by Global Voices Online » Global Voices is seeking a Project Manager for Translation Exchange — May 11, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  15. […] of news and information across multiple languages to support the polyglot Internet – read this post by Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman for background. The specific objectives are to research […]

    Pingback by Global Voices is seeking a Project Manager for Translation Exchange :: Elites TV — May 11, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  16. […] The Lingua initiative, unvoluntary nearly every by the enthusiasm, creativity, and the efforts of move translators, demonstrates the power for a accord of like-minded translators and writers to denture module barriers to deal stories and information, supported on a simple, untechnical platform. Lingua points to the continuance of manlike try and the grandness of society and accord in choosing what to translate. It has also demonstrated the continuance of diffuse manlike movement as a effectuation of apace translating a super abstraction of underway and topical information. The intent for a movement mercantilism as a nonconvergent and gratis send to Lingua began in salutation to the super contest of the someone internet: that, with over 1.3 1000000000 cyberspace users, whatever digit of us is exclusive sight a diminutive swing of existing content, supported on our module capacities. The supply was addressed during our 2008 Summit in Budapest, both in presentations by members of the Lingua aggroup (see http://globalvoices.blip.tv/file/1070249)  and in numerous conversations on the side. Ethan Zuckerman captures the phenomenon in this post – and in its arts translation. […]

    Pingback by Global: The polyglot internet and translation exchange | Global Voices Online — May 11, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  17. […] programme and aggregation crossways binary languages to hold the someone cyberspace – feature this post by Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman for background. The limited objectives are to […]

    Pingback by Global Voices is seeking a Project Manager for Translation Exchange | Global Voices Online — May 11, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  18. […] I think there are a lot of lessons in the tool and thinking behind it for anyone who hopes to make the polyglot internet more comprehensible, and for anyone thinking about online […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » TED embraces social translation — May 13, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  19. […] I think there are a lot of lessons in the tool and thinking behind it for anyone who hopes to make the polyglot internet more comprehensible, and for anyone thinking about online […]

    Pingback by TED Embraces Social Translation | FollowGreen.com — May 14, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

  20. […] I think there are a lot of lessons in the tool and thinking behind it for anyone who hopes to make the polyglot internet more comprehensible, and for anyone thinking about online […]

    Pingback by TED Embraces Social Translation | EcoSilly — May 15, 2009 @ 4:00 am

  21. […] وذلك من أجل دعم الانترنت متعدد اللغات – راجع هذه التدوينة التي كتبها  إيثان زكرمان – أحد مؤسسي الأصوات العالمية […]

    Pingback by Global Voices بالعربية » الأصوات العالمية تبحث عن مدير لمشروع تبادل الترجمة — May 15, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  22. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » New York Times on Social Translation — May 17, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  23. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by New York Times on Social Translation | EcoSilly — May 19, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  24. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by New York Times on Social Translation | NomadsLand Post — May 19, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  25. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by New York Times on Social Translation | green hopogus — May 19, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  26. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Green Design » Blog Archive » New York Times on Social Translation — May 19, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  27. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by New York Times on Social Translation | FollowGreen.com — May 19, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

  28. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by New York Times on Social Translation | Climate Vine — May 20, 2009 @ 6:25 am

  29. […] of us arguing that we’re entering a world where massive social translation is neccesary, the polyglot internet, it would be awfully helpful to have a sense for whether English is still the majority language on […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » What percentage of the Internet is in English? In Chinese? — June 1, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  30. […] http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/the-polyglot-internet/ * […]

    Pingback by Brown Bourne: Favorites — June 22, 2009 @ 12:06 am

  31. […] those of us who think the Internet is a powerful tool for international understanding, language is a challenge we need to confront, a complex set of problems we need to address. I just had the chance to join a small band of people […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Notes and reflections from the Open Translation Tools Summit 2009 — June 26, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  32. […] total amount of English language content on the Internet. Welcome to the diversified diversified Polyglot Internet. I think it is important not to dismiss this as purely a tendency in the Global South. In the […]

    Pingback by Language as social justice, a goodbye to the anglo web and hello to diversified campaining « Change your tools — July 17, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  33. […] total amount of English language content on the Internet. Welcome to the diversified diversified Polyglot Internet. I think it is important not to dismiss this as purely a tendency in the Global South. In the […]

    Pingback by Language as social justice, a goodbye to the anglo web and hello to diversified campaining — July 27, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  34. […] My hearts in Accra The Polyglot Internet […]

    Pingback by Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 07/31/2009 — July 31, 2009 @ 6:57 am

  35. […] year ago that we need sustained, distributed human efforts to make translation more pervasive in a polyglot internet. In recent talks, I’ve been offering a thought experiment – how would our online […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Building the future of translation, online — September 20, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  36. […] titled The End Of The Language Barrier. The bottom of the article points to an equally important statement written for the World Economic Forum by Ethan Zuckerman, founder of the Global Voices site that extends the reach of weblogs to people […]

    Pingback by Radar @ O’Reilly Media on WWL | Worldwide Lexicon — September 23, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  37. […] We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

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  38. […] We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge thelimitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

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  39. […] We hit the correct to speak. No digit haw shorten our immunity of speech. We pass the limitations on immunity of style but they staleness be circumscribed as narrowly as possible, lest we encounter […]

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  40. […] II. We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

    Pingback by A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace « cubicgarden.com… — March 29, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  41. […] We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge thelimitations on freedom of speech but they must be defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

    Pingback by Stumblers.Net › Jarvis: Google is defending citizens of the net — March 29, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  42. […] ????????????????? ???????????? ??????????????????????????????? […]

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  43. […] We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must be defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

    Pingback by My cyberspace bill of rights | Jeff Jarvis | WorldBBNews — May 3, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  44. […] of millions of people to get online and use their native language. The bad news: it threatens to divide the web into separate Internets along language lines. OTM producer Mark Phillips reports on the translation […]

    Pingback by Shopfloor Blog Archive » Translation Tools are Improving. ??? — May 11, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  45. […] problem that confronts media as a whole – the Babel problem. As I’ve written elsewhere, the internet is becoming more multilingual as people, organizations and publications from all over […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Global Voices: Love and money — May 13, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

  46. […] of geeks, is for everyone now. The globally-connected Ethan Zuckerman introduced us to the idea of “multiple internets” fractured by language and governmental barriers, but it was clear that cultural and social norms […]

    Pingback by My God, it’s Full of Internets « All of the Above — March 8, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

  47. […] We have the right to speak. No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must be defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves […]

    Pingback by My cyberspace bill of rights | Richard Hartley — October 5, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  48. […] Zuckerman, E. (2008), The Polyglot Internet http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/the-polyglot-internet/ […]

    Pingback by Why Machine Translation Matters: Trends & Best Practices | The Big Wave — January 7, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  49. […] activists (some of them are my friends) participants in what Ethan Zuckerman calls the polyglot internet, and whom David Sasaki calls ‘Believers without Borders’. They are participants in the […]

    Pingback by Transmediale: The future of Tech in Africa | Afromusing — January 17, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

  50. […] haben das Recht zu reden. Niemand hat das Recht, die Redefreiheit einzuschränken. Wir anerkennen die notwendigen Beschränkungen dieses Rechts, doch müssen sie so eng wie nur irgend möglich definiert werden, dürfen wir doch nicht nach dem […]

    Pingback by Internet-Charta: “Wir haben das Recht auf Vernetzung” | Digital | ZEIT ONLINE | Medienzeiger — March 28, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

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