Crowdsourcing: One of the top two threats to professional translators?

According to a recent recent article in Translorial, the journal of the Northern California Translators Association, the American Translators Association Board had just declared crowdsourcing one of the top two threats to the profession and the association. It was tied with the economic downturn.

A companion piece that was also part of the February 2010 issue of Translorial offers a brief summary—and a link to the video recording—of a talk from the 2009 general meeting of the Northern California Translators Association. The talk was entitled “New Trends in Crowdsourcing: The Kiva/Idem Case Study,” and it was given by Monica Moreno, localization manager at Idem Translations, and Naomi Baer, Director of Micro-loan Review and Translation at a not-for-profit microfinancing organization called Kiva. (Baer, incidentally, is also the author of the first Translorial article I cited).

Despite the ATA’s rather dour opinion of crowdsourcing, both the Translorial article and the presentation by Moreno and Baer offer a fairly positive view of the opportunities crowdsourcing provides not just to the companies that turn to volunteers for their translation needs, but also to web users, minority-language communities, and even professional translators. After all, as Moreno and Baer noted, languages that are considered Tier 2 or lower by corporations are often used in crowdsourcing initiatives. Just look at the TED Open Translation Project , one of the crowdsourcing initiatives cited in the presentation.

As of March 26, 2010, TEDTalks have been subtitled into more than 70 languages, including Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Icelandic and Hungarian. More than 400 talks have been subtitled in Bulgarian, nearly 300 in Arabic, and more than 200 in Romanian, Polish and Turkish. And these figures compare favourably with traditional Tier 1 languages: French (304 talks), Italian (263 talks), German (195 talks) and Spanish (575 talks). By comparison, large localization projects by commercial organizations don’t usually offer as many languages: Of Google, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, which topped the 2009 Global Brands ranking published in the Financial Times, Coca-Cola appears to have been localized for the most country and language pairs, with a whopping 124 countries and 141 locales, while Microsoft is a close second at 124 locales. However, many of the links to Coca-Cola sites (e.g. nearly all of the 44 African locales) actually take users to the US English site, so Coke probably offers closer to just under 100 locales, many of which (e.g. 13 of the 30 Eurasia locales) are actually English-language versions. Likewise, IBM, the fourth-ranked brand, offers 100 locales, but 49 of them are English-language versions, and another 10 are in Spanish. So, while some of the largest brands initially appear to have targeted more linguistic groups, the TEDTalks have actually been made available in more languages.

In addition, smaller linguistic communities within a region are not often targeted by the larger corporations, as these groups may not have the purchasing power to justify translation costs. Microsoft, Coca-Cola, IBM, Procter & Gamble, and Ikea, for instance, all offer their Spain websites only in Spanish, while some TED videos (as well as Google) are available in Catalan and Galician. With non-profit initiatives, where users may feel driven to contribute their time to support a particular cause or to make available information (like the TED talks) that would otherwise be inaccessible to those who don’t speak the source language, crowdsourcing can help reduce the language hierarchy that for-profit localization initiatives encourage: the translations are user-generated and sometimes user-initiated, so as long as enough members of a community feel committed to making information available, they will provide translations into so-called major and minor languages without worrying about a return on investment. What we need now, then, is more research into the quality of the translations produced by volunteer, crowdsourced efforts. Making information available in more languages is laudable, but if the translations are inaccurate, contain omissions or have added information, then the crowdsourcing model may not be as advantageous as it appears.

The presentation by Moreno and Baer also offered a few insights into the motivations of volunteer translators: some wanted to give back to the community, others wanted to mentor student or amateur translators without having to make a significant time commitment, while others saw it as a networking opportunity. As Baer noted, her volunteer efforts for Kiva eventually landed her a paid job with the organization. These anecdotal details about translator motivations underscored (at least for me) the need to systematically research the motivations of the people involved in crowdsourced translation projects. I think it’s worth comparing the motivations of those involved in non-for-profit initiatives like TED, Kiva, or Global Voices (which I’ve discussed in a previous post) and those involved in initiatives launched by for-profit companies such as Facebook. I suspect that motivations would differ, but a survey of the volunteers could confirm or refute this hypothesis.

Overall, the presentation by Moreno and Baer is definitely worth watching if you’re at all interested in crowdsourcing and translation. It’s available on Vimo at this address: http://vimeo.com/8549171.

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