The Internet: Lost in Translation

Does the Web speak your language? Volunteers around the world are trying to help it do just that.

The New York Times’ Prototype column, by Leslie Berlin, just carried a story on volunteer and machine translation projects.

In the early years of the Web, nearly all of its content appeared in English. But that is changing quickly. Today, articles on Wikipedia are available in more than 200 languages, for example.

And about 36 percent of the seven million blogs running on WordPress, a free software platform, are in languages other than English, according to the founder Matt Mullenweg.
Leonard Chien, a translator, volunteers his skills at the
Global Voices site. Such changes create a challenge, says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

“We are all experiencing a smaller Internet than we should be,” he said. “In the user-created Web, we’ve created a weird dynamic where there is more out there every day — some of it important — but each person can individually read less of it because it’s in multiple languages.”

Translations serves are both automated and human and help to translate what Zuckerman calls the “polyglot” Internet. Machine translation is now free at Google Translate (and other sites) which offers 41 languages. Enter a block of text and the machine-translation appears immediately.

A neat feature is that Google Translate can translate a search term and then hunt for it on foreign-language sites. Hits will appear in both the target language and translated back into the original. I used this feature to search for a “lost” TALALAY – an astro-physicist at a university in the far-off Urals in Russia, and found not only him, but his son.

Machine translations may help with basic texts but non-Romance languages and complex subjects may be too difficult. Today, volunteers are providing a free, human touch.

Leonard Chien, a student and professional translator and interpreter living in Taiwan, charges $100 an hour as an interpreter. But two to three hours a day, he volunteers his translation skills to Global Voices, a citizen journalist site founded by Mr. Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon. There, Mr. Chien translates posts from around the world into Chinese.

Mr. Chien is co-director of the Global Voices translation project, called Lingua, which uses volunteers to translate Global Voices posts into 15 languages. He receives a small monthly stipend for his work as a director, he says, but he is happy to donate his time as a translator.

“I am always excited to see new stories are up,” he says. “I want to tell my readers, but in different languages.”

Last month, 104 people volunteered as Lingua translators. Other global volunteers participate in the “Google in Your Language” program, helping it translate features into 120 languages.

Why do these people volunteer? Genealogists are well aware of how volunteers have changed the face of our favorite hobby, as so many dedicated individuals around the world provide their expertise to help others who are linguistically-challenged.

A Damascus-based Arabic-English translator volunteers 15-20 hours a week. It also brings him exposure and experience and he enjoys the “challenge of translating between two very linguistically and culturally different languages.”

A Möhnesee, Germany graphic designer says he has spent 62 hours translating conference talks into German and is “inspired by the content itself.

Read abut the TED conference in the story. The event began the video-translation project expecting to use professional translators, even though the site had received unsolicited translations from fans of some talks.

“We thought professional translation was the only way to ensure high-quality work,” explains June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media. The shift to volunteer translators came last fall, after Ms. Cohen and her colleagues — the roughly 20 full-time employees speak 14 languages among them, she says — read
several volunteers’ translations and were impressed.

“The volunteers are deeply committed to making the best translation, and they don’t care how long it takes them,” she explains. “There is a passion there that you don’t get from hired guns.”

It is also cheaper. A professional translation company, says Cohen, would charge $500,000 for the work volunteers have already done or that’s in progress.

As far as quality control, some services require a review by a second translator and have translators sign their work.

Is there a middle ground between machines and humans?

A company called is trying to do just that. At the site, where English and Arabic speakers discuss the Middle East, postings automatically appear in the other language (translated by machine and tweaked by humans).

Read the complete article at the link above.


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