Translation in Wikipedia

I’ve been busy working on a new paper about translation and revision in Wikipedia, which is why I haven’t posted anything here in quite some time. I’ve just about finished now, so I’m taking some time to write a series of posts related to my research, based on material I had to cut from the article. Later, if I have time, I’ll also write a post about the ethics and challenges of researching translation and revision trends in Wikipedia articles.

This post talks about the corpus I’ve used as the basis of my research.

Translations from French and Spanish Wikipedia via Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English

I wanted to study translation within Wikipedia, so I chose a sample project, Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English, and compiled a corpus of articles translated in whole or in part from French and Spanish into English. To do this, I consulting recent and previous versions of Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English, which has a regularly updated list split into two categories: the “translate” section, which lists articles Wikipedians have identified as having content in a language other than English, and the “cleanup” section, which lists articles that have been (presumably) translated into English but require post-editing. Articles usually require cleanup for one of three reasons: the translation was done using machine translation software, the translation was done by a non-native English speaker, or the translation was done by someone who did not have a good grasp of the source language. Occasionally, articles are listed in the clean-up section even though they may not, in fact, be translations: this usually happens when the article appears to have been written by a non-native speaker of English. (The Aviación del Noroeste article is one example). Although the articles listed on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English come from any of Wikipedia’s 285 language versions, I was interested only in the ones described as being originally written in French or Spanish, since these are my two working languages.

I started my research on May 15, 2013, and at that time, the current version of the Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English page listed six articles that had been translated from French and ten that had been translated from Spanish. I then went back through the Revision History of this page, reading through the archived version for the 15th of every month between May 15, 2011 and April 15, 2013: that is, the May 15, 2011, June 15, 2011, July 15, 2011 all the way to April 15, 2013 versions of the page, bringing the sample period to a total of two years. In that time, the number of articles of French origin listed in either the “translate” or “clean-up” sections of the archived pages to a total of 34, while the total number of articles of Spanish origin listed in those two sections was 60. This suggests Spanish to English translations were more frequently reported on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English than translations from French. Given that the French version of the encyclopedia has more articles, more active users and more edits than the Spanish version, the fact that more Spanish to English translation was taking place through Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English is somewhat surprising.

Does this mean only 94 Wikipedia articles were translated from French or Spanish into English between May 2011 and May 2013? Unlikely: the articles listed on this page were identified by Wikipedians as being “rough translations” or in a language other than English. Since the process for identifying these articles is not fully automated, many other translated articles could have been created or expanded during this time: Other “rough” translations may not have been spotted by Wikipedia users, while translations without the grammatical errors and incorrect syntax associated with non-native English might have passed unnoticed by Wikipedians who might have otherwise added the translation to this page. So while this sample group of articles is probably not representative of all translations within Wikipedia (or even of French- and Spanish-to-English translation in particular), Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English was still a good source from which to draw a sample of translated articles that may have undergone some sort of revision or editing. Even if the results are not generalizable, they at least indicate the kinds of changes made to translated articles within the Wikipedia environment, and therefore, whether this particular crowdsourcing model is an effective way to translate.

So what are these articles about? Let’s take a closer look via some tables. In this first one, I’ve grouped the 94 translated articles by subject. Due to rounding, the percentages do not add up to exactly 100.

Subject Number of French articles Percentage of total (French) Number of Spanish articles Percentage of total (Spanish)
Biography 20 58.8% 20 33.3%
Arts (TV, film, music, fashion, museums) 3 8.8% 8 13.3%
Geography 2 5.8% 12 20%
Transportation 2 5.8% 4 6.7%

(includes company profiles)

2 5.8% 2 3.3%
Politics 1 2.9% 4 6.7%
Technology (IT) 1 2.9% 1 1.6%
Sports 1 2.9% 1 1.6%
Education 1 2.9% 1 1.6%
Science 1 2.9% 0 0%
Architecture 0 0% 2 3.3%
Unknown 0 0% 3 5%
Other 0 0% 2 3.3%
Total 34 99.5% 60 99.7%

Table 1: Subjects of translated articles listed on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English (May 15, 2011-May 15, 2013)

As we can see from this table, the majority of the translations from French and Spanish listed on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English are biographies—of politicians, musicians, actors, engineers, doctors, architects, and even serial killers. While some of these biographies are of historical figures, most are of living people. The arts—articles about TV shows, bands, museums, and fashion—were also a popular topic for translation. In the translations from Spanish, articles about cities or towns in Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Venezuela and Mexico (grouped here under the label “geography”) were also frequent. So it seems that the interests of those who have been translating articles from French and Spanish as part of this initiative have focused on arts, culture and politics rather than specialized topics such as science, technology, law and medicine. That may explain why articles are also visibly associated with French- and Spanish-speaking regions, demonstrated by the next two tables.

I created these two tables by consulting each of the 94 articles, except in cases where the article had been deleted and no equivalent article could be found in the Spanish or French Wikipedias (marked “unknown” in the tables), and I identified the main country associated with the topic. A biography about a French citizen, for instance, was counted as “France”, as were articles about French subway systems, cities and institutions. Every article was associated with just one country. Thus, when a biography was about someone who was born in one country but lived and worked primarily in another, I labelled the article as being about the country where that person had spent the most time. For instance, was born in Barcelona, but became a French citizen over thirty years ago and is a politician in France’s Parti socialiste, so this article was labelled “France.”

Country/Region Number of articles
France 24
Belgium 2
Cameroon 1
Algeria 2
Canada 1
Western Europe 1
Switzerland 1
Romania 1
n/a 1
Total: 34

Table 2: Primary country associated with translations from French Wikipedia


Country Number of articles
Spain 13
Mexico 10
Colombia 10
Argentina 7
Chile 3
Venezuela 3
Peru 2
Ecuador 2
Nicaragua 1
Guatemala 1
Uruguay 1
United States 1
Cuba 1
n/a 1
Unknown 4
Total 60

Table 3: Primary country associated with translations from Spanish Wikipedia

Interestingly, these two tables demonstrate a marked contrast in the geographic spread of the articles: more than 75% of the the French source articles dealt with one country (France), while 75% of the Spanish source articles dealt with three (Spain, Colombia and Mexico), with nearly equal representation for each country. The two tables do, however, demonstrate that the vast majority of articles had strong ties to either French or Spanish-speaking countries: only two exceptions (marked as “n/a” in the tables) did not have a specific link to a country where French or Spanish is an official language.

I think it’s important to keep in mind, though, that even though the French/Spanish translations in Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English seem to focus on biographies, arts and politics from France, Colombia, Spain and Mexico, translation in Wikipedia as a whole might have other focuses. Topics might differ for other language pairs, and they might also differ in other translation initiatives within Wikipedia and its sister projects (Wikinews, Wiktionary, Wikibooks, etc.). For instance the WikiProject:Medicine Translation Task Force aims to translate medical articles from English Wikipedia into as many other languages as possible, while the Category: Articles needing translation from French Wikipedia page lists over 9,000 articles that could be expanded with content from French Wikipedia, on topics ranging from French military units, government, history and politics to geographic locations and biographies.

I’ll have more details about these translations in the coming weeks. If you have specific questions you’d like to read about, please let me know and I’ll try to find the answers.