Crowdsourced translation – Twitter jumps on the bandwagon

Twitter is the latest company to use crowdsourcing to localise their website and interface – about time they localised it too, as in the arena of social networking, Twitter has been lagging behind other sites such as Facebook when it comes to reaching a multilingual audience…

So what is crowdsourcing exactly?

Crowdsourcing is when the public or users of a website are invited to contribute their suggestions on or solutions to a problem, in the case of Twitter, the localisation of a web interface. The most famous early example of this method being put into practice for adding web content is Wikipedia.

Sounds like a cheeky way to get translations for free…

Well, it might look that way, but research conducted by the Common Sense Advisory found that reducing cost was not one of the main reasons why companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Plaxo took the crowdsourcing approach to translating their content. Easy for them to say when they aren’t the ones doing work for free, but it seems that speed and reach were the main factors in their choice – when you consider that end users actually increase the quality of the translation by making it more relevant to the audience, crowdsourcing starts to look like a sensible option after all.

Charities and religious organisations have long been in the habit of inviting volunteers to translate text for them, but the concept of profit-making entities doing so is relatively new. And those who are dabbling in this trend are finding that it doesn’t always go down very well.

LinkedIn recently stirred up a hornet’s nest in the translator community when it approached language professionals with a survey to find out if they would be interested in getting involved. The main bone of contention seems to have been a question about how they would like to be rewarded for their work, from which the survey’s recipients were asked to choose from 5 options – none of which involved actually being paid.

Andrew Adam Newman, journalist for the New York Times commented on the angry response of many translators:

“It’s sort of a clash of cultures, Internet companies which I think are probably well-intentioned asking professionals to contribute work because they think the exposure will be of great value to the contributors, but those contributors taking umbrage because they feel like they’re being asked to do free work by a for-profit company.” (read the full article)

So, is crowdsourcing the future of translation, and does it represent a threat to translators earning their living?

As a translation company that works with a wide variety of clients of different sizes in all sectors, the projects we work on vary greatly in size and subject matter – crowdsourcing only works for certain types of project, and would not be appropriate for something such as a press release, due to the tight deadline involved. Neither would it work for translation of marketing literature, or a company website  as the style and message here needs to be consistent, and building a community or committee to decide on its translation would actually be counter-productive.

The Common Sense Advisory concluded that “[crowdsourced translation] is not a threat to the profession. It is simply another method of working in the digital age. Just like computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools were once seen as a threat by freelancers who had no familiarity with them, [crowdsourcing] looks and sounds menacing at first to those who have not engaged it in before.”

As with many things, there are those translators ready and willing to embrace this change, but it’s understandable that freelance translators feel nervous and more than a little threatened by this development – they have to look out for themselves, and protect their livelihood – many are already concerned that the service they provide is not adequately valued by the public at large, and is not considered to be on the same level as other professions (lawyer, accountant, etc) if you were to ask the average person on the street.

Companies should note that collaborative translation is not a cheaper means of getting the job done, in fact it could be more costly in terms of setup and management – this needs to be weighed up against the benefits of speeding up the project by getting multiple contributors involved.

Many of our clients choose a translation company precisely becasue they either don’t have sufficient resources to manage translations internally, or simply don’t want to do this themselves – this will continue to be the case, so crowdsourcing won’t be putting translators out of business anytime soon.

Tell us what you think – whether you are a translator or another kind of professional, how do you feel about providing your skills and knowledge in this way?