What translators can learn from the F/OSS community

Looking through my blog archives late last year, I was disappointed to discover I’d posted only seven articles in all of 2013: usually my goal is to get at least one post up every month, and last year was the first time since 2009 that I hadn’t been able to achieve that. So my goal for this year is to blog more frequently and more consistently. And with that, here is my first post of 2014:

In November, I came across a blog post that hit on a number of issues relevant to the translation industry, even though it was addressed to the Free/Open-Source Software (F/OSS) community. It’s called The Ethics of Unpaid Labour and the OSS Community, and it appeared on Ashe Dryden’s blog. Ashe writes and speaks about about diversity in corporations, and so her post focused on how unpaid OSS work creates inequalities in the workforce. As she argues, the demographics of OSS contributors differs from that of proprietary software developers as well as the general population, with white males overwhelmingly represented among OSS contributors: One source Ashe cites, for instance, remarks that only 1.5% of F/OSS contributors are female, compared to 28% of contributors for proprietary software. Ashe notes that lack of free time among groups that are typically marginalized in the IT sector (women, certain ethnic groups, people with disabilities, etc.) is the main reason these groups are under-represented in OSS projects.

These demographics are problematic for the workforce because many software developers require their employees (and potential new hires) to have contributed to F/OSS projects. And while some large IT firms do allow employees to contribute to such projects during work hours, people from marginalized groups often do not work at these kinds of companies. This means people who would like to find paid employment as software developers probably need to be able to devote unpaid hours to F/OSS projects so they have a portfolio of publicly available code for employers to consult.

So how is this relevant to translators, or the translation industry? It’s relevant because the same factors affecting the demographics of the F/OSS community are also likely to affect the demographics of the crowdsourced translation community. People can volunteer to translate the Facebook interface only if they have free time and access to a computer; likewise, people with physical disabilities that make interacting with a computer difficult are likely to spend less time participating in crowdsourced projects than people with no disabilities. And since, in many cases, the community of translators participating in a crowdsourced project will largely determine how quickly a project is completed, what texts are translated and what language pairs will be available, the profile of participants is important.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data about the profiles of people who participate in crowdsourced (or volunteer) projects. The studies that have been done do hint at a larger question worth exploring: O’Brien & Schäler’s 2010 article on the motivations of The Rosetta Foundation’s volunteer translators noted that the group of translators identifying themselves as “professionals” was overwhelmingly female (82%), while the gender of those identifying themselves as amateurs was more balanced (54% female). The source languages of the volunteers were mainly English, French, German and Spanish. My own survey of Wikipedia translators found that 84% of the respondents were male and 75% were younger than 36. Because both these projects show that people with certain profiles participated more than others, it’s clear there’s a need for more research. If we had a better idea of the profiles of those who participate in other crowdsourced translation projects, we would be able to get see whether some projects seem more attractive to one gender, which language pairs are most often represented, and what kinds of content is being translated for which language communities. And we could then try to figure out whether (and if so, how) to make these projects more inclusive.

Since it’s still a point of debate whether relying on crowdsourcing to translate the Twitter interface, a Wikipedia article or a TED Talk is beneficial to the translation industry, let’s leave that question aside for a moment and just consider the following: one of the benefits both novice and seasoned translators are supposed to be able to reap from participating in a crowdsourced project is visible recognition for their work. Online, accessible users profiles are common in crowdsourcing projects (as in this example from the TED translator community), and translators are usually given visible credit for their contributions to a project (as in this Webflakes article, which credits the author, translator and reviewer). If certain groups of people are more likely to participate in crowdsourced projects, that means this kind of visibility is available only to them. If we take a look at where the software development industry is headed (with employers actively seeking those who have participated in F/OSS projects, putting those who cannot freely share their code at a disadvantage), translators could eventually see a similar trend, putting those who are unable (or who choose not) to participate in crowdsourced projects at a disadvantage.

I think this is a point worth considering when crowdsourced projects are designed, and it’s certainly a point worth exploring in further studies, as it raises a host of ethical questions that deserve a closer look.

2 thoughts on “What translators can learn from the F/OSS community

  1. Interesting! May I ask if this is one of your research projects?

  2. It’s definitely next on my list. I’m in the planning stages right now for a large research project that would explore issues of diversity in crowdsourced translation projects. Any insights into this issue would certainly be welcome!

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