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Chris Salzberg on Global Voices, and the challenges and potential of community translation

The last two major projects I’ve worked on – Geekcorps and Global Voices – share an interesting trait. Both ended up becoming research projects for academics studying the changing nature of organizations in a digital age. Dr. Leo Hsu of New York University wrote an excellent dissertation, “Hacking Development” about Geekcorps’s novel approach to skill training. My friend and colleague Lokman Tsui is looking closely at Global Voices and community values, like tolerance, listening and hospitality. As a make-believe academic (i.e., someone who hangs out in academic contexts, writes the occasional paper but tries to avoid all that scholarly rigor stuff), I find that the scrutiny brought to bear by these friends often reveals truths that are difficult for me to see, either because I’m too close to the projects or because I lack the frame for the insights.

So it’s not a surprise that Chris Salzberg, a researcher at the University of Tokyo and Japanese Language Editor for Global Voices, was able to tell me a great deal that I didn’t know about a project I’d helped found. While Chris works on bridging between the Japanese-language blogosphere and our English-speaking readers, his recent research has focused on Lingua, our project which makes Global Voices content available in over a dozen languages. Presenting his research at Berkman this week, Chris has good evidence that Lingua is taking over Global Voices, with more volunteers now focused on translating our content than on creating it.

In a recent paper for the Translation Journal, Chris describes Lingua as one of the world’s largest translation communities. He admits that this may not be true – it’s hard to know what projects should be described as “translation communities”, as translation is usually a solitary activity. Projects like Cucumis, dotsub and Worldwide Lexicon are trying to take advantage of the distributed, participatory nature of the Internet to help turn translation into a team sport.

Looking closely at Lingua, Chris sees a number of patterns for group translation emerging. Our Chinese translation team uses wikis to break apart translation tasks. Most don’t – most use simple mailing lists and an editor and volunteer system that allows translators to agree to work on pieces and submit their work for review by an editor. A few communities allow seasoned translators to post content to the sites without review. The flexibility of structure appears to be helping Lingua grow – Chris shows a graph of community growth, that shows Lingua growing larger than the GV editorial community in roughly half the lifespan.

This makes good sense, in that the Lingua teams are producing more than a dozen different sites, while the GV team works primarily on one. But it’s also an interesting example of a blind spot Rebecca and I had when founding the project. We believed – perhaps unconsciously – that Global Voices would focus on bridge bloggers, and that these bridge figures would use English to reach wider audiences. The rise of the polyglot internet rapidly proved us wrong, and while Rebecca and I were both surprised at the passion for creating GV sites in local languages, we’ve realized our mistake and encouraged the growth.

The challenges of translation continue to be surprising. As Jillian York – GV’s Morocco author, and a talented Arabic/English translator – explains in her post about Chris’s talk:

Chris points to “lost context” as the biggest challenge of the project, meaning, when original articles are translated into a foreign language, translators are often stumped on how to translate phrases, concepts or terms. For example, in an article on “genital excision” (also known as female genital mutilation), a Malagasy translator had difficulty translating the foreign concept. She finally settled on “circumcision of young girls.” This is a common occurrence; as a Global Voices author, I’ve had translators contact me on a number of occasions to clarify terms I’ve used in articles on Morocco; terms which are clear in English but may not be in, for example, Korean.

Chris’s analysis of Global Voices and group translation is focused, in part, on finding a place within academic discourse to study this new form of translation. He sees the field as related to the study of journalism, the sort of internet and society studies we do at Berkman and to the small, but growing, field of translation studies. This search feels, to me, like a demand for legitimacy for the field. It’s understandable, given how little attention translation receives in the technical community. Discussing Chris’s work, Doc Searls pointed out that translation in an open source context often tends to be treated as “a box to check.” In the same way that projects need specialized talent to ensure that the right device drivers are written, someone needs to translate the interface into Spanish and Swahili, but that’s certainly not considered the central or sexy part of the project.

I continue to wonder whether Americans are especially insensitive to the importance of translation. We translate very little in comparison to our European bretheren (there’s roughly 15% as much German to English translation as English to German, according to this back of the envelope analysis I did some years back on Index Translationum.)

As the internet becomes more multilingual, these asymmetries become more apparent. For those who want to keep up with the Chinese internet, a few sites like Roland Soong’s indispensible EastSouthWestNorth exist. But there’s an explosion of Chinese translations of English content. See Solidot for a Chinese version of Slashdot, for instance, or TEDtoChina, a site that translates and discusses videos from the TED conference. I’m having a hard time imagining a similar site doing peer translation of top Chinese lectures so that they were available to English-speaking audiences… though this is something we badly need. The translations we do at Global Voices are a start, but the wealth of information available in a connected, polyglot world points to the need for much more work.

5 thoughts on “Chris Salzberg on Global Voices, and the challenges and potential of community translation”

  1. Thanks for this great article. I’ve learned about translation community I didn’t know.
    There is a typo for cucumbis which is in in fatc cucumis. Bye :)

  2. Thanks Ethan for this great write-up!

    Claire, thanks! But the link seems to go to a different article translation… couldn’t find a translation on the French site.


  3. You’ve hit on an important point: the use of English as an international language provides its largest benefits to global elites who can, by investing money and time, straddle two (or more) language communities. The typical usonian, who never learns a second language to competence — though not as disadvantaged as someone who speaks a less-widely-used language — is still denied access to much of the world’s intellectual and cultural heritage.

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