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:

Predicting the future of translation, circa 1960

I came across a fascinating blog today: Paleo-Future: A look into the future that never was showcases and discusses primary sources from the 1870s-1990s that predicted what the future would like. Since 2007, Matt Novak has written more than 500 posts, each of which provides a brief comment on a historical document (advertisements and newspaper or magazine articles, for the most part) that predicted such things as moving sidewalks, robotic companions, domed cities, and, of course, universal translation.

When I searched through the archives of Paleo-Future, I got a little over thirty hits for the word “translation”, although most of these turned out to be comments on the seven articles that actually address the issue. Not surprisingly, they all predict some sort of automated translation software/device that will produce accurate and idiomatic translations so that people do not have to learn other languages themselves to communicate with others. This is, after all, a common solution to intercultural and interspecies communication in science-fiction, from Star Trek to Farscape. (Brian Mossop, by the way, published an interesting article in 1996 about the treatment of translation in science fiction: The Image of Translation in Science Fiction & Astronomy, The Translator 2(1): 1-26).

Here’s a summary of the Paleo-Future articles about translation, in chronological order:

  • A 1960 syndicated comic (Closer than we think) from the Chicago Tribune foresaw a universal language box, based on the fact that the Air Force already had a bulky and complicated, 40-words-per-minute “robot translating machine.” Miniaturization and magnetic tapes, the comic strip suggested, could lead to a universal box that “might listen to one vernacular and instantly relay verbal a translation. Any language would then be usable anywhere, universally!”
  • A 1964 article from the Chicago Tribune predicted, among other things, that by 1989, teenagers and adults would have computers “to aid studies or automatically translate foreign tongues into English.”
  • A 1967 article from Futurist magazine predicted “the everyday employment of translating machines” in global communication within twenty years.
  • A 1981 book entitled School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow) described the vacation of the future, noting that if you don’t speak the language of the Space Island you choose to visit, you can simply “hire a portable computer that translates instantly from one language to another.”
  • A 1982 catalogue for kids remarks that no one will have to learn foreign languages in the future, because “electronic language translator[s]” will translate everything one person says into another language: “When you say ‘Hello’ out will come ‘Konnichiwa’ in perfect Japanese.”
  • A 1993 AT&T video offered a “vision of the future” in which picture phones provide automatic simultaneous interpretation and even match lip movements to the target language speech.
  • A 1993 video clip predicted universal language translators.

I think what intrigues me most about these articles is the similarity of the visions, regardless of the year in which the prediction was published. Universal translation machines are just so appealing an idea, since they would remove nearly all existing barriers to interlingual communication, that the idea inevitably resurfaces. I do wonder, though, whether the similarity of vision stems from the fact that all these publications are from the United States and are written by speakers of one of the world’s dominant languages, English. Do predictions about language and translation differ in other countries and language communities, particularly those in which many speakers are bilingual? I’ll have to look into this.

And yet, some of the predictions are not too far off the mark. The 1967 and 1964 articles predicted that computerized translation would become popular but did not mention how accurate the translations might be. And certainly online translation software has become ubiquitous for gisting purposes. It does strike me though that predictions about translation inevitably focus on the automation of the process rather than on other aspects of the profession (e.g. predicting a greater need for translators as global trade increases or, conversely, a reduction in translation as language death increases and globalization gradually decreases the cultural and linguistic differences among the world’s communities); however, given that a great number of the sources cited on the Paleo-Future blog predict that any number of tasks, from housework to war, will be automated in the future, it is perhaps inevitable that interlingual communication should be seen in this light as well.