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The Economist, in Chinese. Just add 240 citizen translators.

The Economist is an unusual publication. In a world where print newspapers and magazines are facing extreme hardship, the Economist has seen its circulation more than triple in the past two decades, a period in which weekly news magazines have generally lost readers. While hyperlocality is a major trend for news publications, the Economist is almost willfully global, reporting news from countries many of us have trouble finding on a map. In a blog age, where objective detachment has given way to the primacy of personal perspective, the Economist has no bylines. Citizen journalism it’s not – letters to the editor begin with “Sir”, and the paper advertises its elite credibility, with advertisements featuring an endorsement from Bill Gates.

It’s expensive (an annual subscription is over $100), it’s dense and sometimes stuffy and it’s extremely unlikely to feature a swimsuit section. (Which is all for the best. I don’t think anyone needs to see Ben Bernanke in a Speedo.) It’s a very, very good magazine, and my constant companion on long plane flights.

The one problem with the Economist? It’s not written in Chinese.

That’s a problem that Shi Yi and the 240-strong volunteers of the EcoTeam are happy to take on. In an excellent article on Waxy.org, Andy Baio explores a translation community that’s dedicated to translating each edition of The Economist from English into Chinese, releasing a bi-weekly PDF file with two full magazines worth of content to a community of subscribers. Community members log into a shared workspace and claim articles they’re interested in translating. Translations take place in moderated BBS forums – commenters can suggest better translations, and the thread’s moderator is responsible for synthesizing comments and translations into a single article.

Table of contents for a recently translated issue of The Economist by EcoTeam

The Economist doesn’t officially authorize the translation, but it sounds like they’re aware and unconcerned. This is a smart approach for publishers to take regarding fan translation – if the Economist isn’t planning on releasing a Chinese edition, why alienate a set of passionate fans? Mimi Ito, who studies communities that subtitle and translate anime, observes that smart publishers watch fan translation to see what titles might work in overseas markets – if there’s a passionate viewership for Full Metal Alchemist in the US, perhaps it makes sense to translate the series professionally and re-release it. My friends at the TED conference are well aware of the “TED to China” fansite, a project that summarizes TED talks in Chinese, trying to share the ideas expressed at the conference with a Chinese-speaking audience. Rather than asking the fans behind the site to “cease and desist” using the TED logo, the TED organizers decided to adopt a community-sourced approach to subtitling and translating their videos, and reached out to the TED to China community for ideas and advice.

The rise of fan translation isn’t a real surprise to me, because it’s already become an important part of the Global Voices community. Shortly after Global Voices began publication, a brilliant young Taiwanese man named Portnoy Zheng began translating selected articles we published, and organizing friends to translate others. As we’re under a Creative Commons attribution license, there are no legal barriers to doing this with Global Voices content, so we started linking to Portnoy’s version. Eventually, we adopted Portnoy’s model as the method for translating Global Voices – loosely organized communities around the world, encouraged to translate as much or as little as they’d like, linked as the “official” translations from the Global Voices site. There are now more people involved with translating Global Voices than with producing the English-language site, and the project is overseen by Portnoy and by the equally remarkable Leonard Chien.

What’s amazing to me is how much work is involved in some of these translation projects. Very active Lingua communities like Spanish translate up to half a dozen pieces a day, some of which are more than a thousand words. But the task of translating The Economist every week is something else. I flipped through some back issues of the Economist and did a quick estimate, guessing that the magazine contains 60-80,000 words of translatable copy a week. One of the least expensive online translation services (that’s not an endorsement – friends who’ve used it rave about the price and complain about quality) charges just under $0.04 a word. That’s $2,400 to $3,200 to translate an issue of the magazine. Professional translators are quoting rates of between $0.20 and 0.30 a word, suggesting between $12,000 and $24,000 for a polished job. Even using the lowest rates, an amateur community is doing $120,000 worth of work a year… so that participants can have a magazine readable in Chinese, and for the sheer enjoyment of working on the project.

(Keep in mind that all the people translating The Economist have significant English skills, significant enough to be able to translate complex text. So the motivation can’t purely be the desire for a more readable edition of the magazine – the people involved with the project are some of the best qualified to be reading the English-language version of the Economist.)

Clay Shirky argues that involvement with projects like Wikipedia reflects people around the world finding ways to better utilize our “cognitive surplus”. As industrialization has given people a strange new commodity – free time – it’s also found ways to help people spend that time. In the early industrial revolution, the solution was gin (Shirky references stories of gin pushcarts working the streets of London, allowing people to cushion the shock of moving from a rural to urban lifestyle.) For the last half of the 20th century, television has been the drug of choice.

With the rise of community projects like Wikipedia – or even more banal pursuits like authoring Lolcats or playing World of Warcraft – Shirky sees us changing from passive consumers into interactive producers, no longer wasting our surplus cognition, but channeling it towards worthwhile projects. Clay estimates that the cognition spent watching television could power a hundred Wikipedia-sized projects per year.

Some of those projects will be translation projects. We’re living in the age of the polyglot internet. The interesting stuff isn’t all in English, or in Chinese. As we start learning about the fascinating stuff that’s out there in Mandarin, Macedonian or Malagasy, the mediocre machine translation tools we currently rely on won’t be acceptable anymore. We need efforts to translate the Economist into Chinese, and efforts to translate critical Chinese media into English. (Roland Soong’s EastSouthWestNorth blog is a great resource, but it’s the work of one alarmingly smart man, and a lot of us who don’t read Chinese are basically screwed if Roland ever decides to stop his translation efforts.)

What’s exciting about the Economist translation project and other translation efforts is that they’re a great proof of concept for distributed human translation, the most realistic system we know of now to translate complex texts accurately, inexpensively and relatively quickly. The success of this project, using very simple tools, helps demonstrate that there’s no technical barrier preventing us from implementing this strategy on a wide scale – the barriers involved are those of interest and enthusiasm.

What will really excite me is seeing a similar project that’s translating critical non-English media into English, because it will demonstrate that English-speaking readers realize that there are perspectives, opinions and news that we’re not getting because not everything gets translated into our native language. I’d love thoughts on what media you’d like access to if communities could be organized to translate it.

11 thoughts on “The Economist, in Chinese. Just add 240 citizen translators.”

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  4. Awesome post – terrific to read your thoughts on this. It’s only a matter of time before non-english media starts to get translated. It just means you can’t wait for a business venture to be the catalyst.

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  9. Fascinating. I found your blog post after searching for what I hoped would be an Economist Chinese edition.

    As to translating non-English articles into English, the New York Community Media Alliance posts a selection of articles every week from local foreign language newspapers in the NYC metro area. In an age of mainstream media downsizing, immigrant/diaspora media is flourishing. See: http://www.indypressny.org/

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