Facebook: Translation tool for developers

Facebook’s new translation tool in 65 languages was the focus of Brad Stone’s New York Times’ “Bits” column the other day.

In his column, he writes that the previously English-only site introduced a tool in January 2008 that enabled users to translate the site into their native languages. Today, it is in 65 languages with most users outside North America.

As of Thursday, October 1, Facebook made the tool – Translations for Facebook Connect – available to some 15,000 sites and apps using the Connect service.

The translation tool works by asking users to submit possible translations of phrases, and then soliciting their votes on which is the most accurate. So now a country’s tourism Web site, for example, can use the tool to solicit help with a translation, and then present the site to users in their native language when they log in using their Facebook ID. It is free for developers, but Facebook hopes it will increase the use of the Connect Service.

Facebook’s human-powered approach juxtaposes quite sharply with Google’s service, which uses technology to automatically translate Web sites and text — with occasional unintentionally comical results. (The Facebook system, of course, has had to handle a relatively tiny number of phrases.)

According to Facebook’s head of platform Ethan Beard, technology doesn’t take into account cultural values or idioms that are hard to translate.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

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