Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Lingua and distributed translation

Earlier today, a tweet popped up on my screen from someone I’d just begun to follow.  MeghnaK is a (self-described) 13-year-old blogger from India.  Her blog is what you might expect from a young woman…mostly personal, with some poetry and a few newsworthy stories.  Her grasp on blogging is clearly beyond her years (or is it?  There were no blogs when I was 13) however, and her writing is impeccable.  Anyway, she remarked on Twitter that her blog is often translated into other languages so that people can read it.

Now, I’m not sure how she figured that out, but it is certainly indicative of a growing trend; newsseekers, tired of seeing the same old in the media of their native language, are seeking translated sources more and more.  And MeghnaK’s timing couldn’t have been better, as Chris Salzberg of Global Voices’ Lingua project is speaking at Berkman today on that very topic.  Chris has written a very interesting paper on his experiences with Lingua and Global Voices, published in Translation Journal.

Lingua, allegedly “one of the largest and most active translation communities in the world,” was borne of the Global Voices 2006 Summit in Delhi, India.  The project answered a need from Global Voices readers whose English comprehension was not good enough to understand the stories coming out of GV.  And since Global Voices authors translate blogs from other languages into English on a regular basis, Lingua was a natural extension of that spirit.

Today, Lingua boasts 15 languages, with 7 soon to come.  But what’s fascinating is not that Lingua exists, but how it exists.  Although each language team has an editor (or in some cases, two), the translators themselves are all volunteers. The teams utilize a distributed translation model; some teams translate pieces using a wiki, others farm out translations to individual translators.  All are still working on the process.

Of course, Lingua is not without its challenges. 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.

Another challenge faced by Lingua is the discrepancies between GV’s bloggers and its translators; while bloggers are often well-versed in “web 2.0″ and proficient as bloggers, some translators (though volunteers) often have a more professional focus in their translation work and are perhaps less familiar with the Internet.

What is clear, though, is that Lingua is a success. Readership grows by the month, and several languages, including Spanish and Italian, have made it into Google News listings. Many languages used within Lingua (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili) cover multiple regions and countries, allowing for a broader reach. And Lingua has a growing number of partnerships with other organizations: GV Arabic and Al Jazeera Talk have linked up, as well as GV Chinese and China Times.

Most of all, Lingua provides one of the world’s best resources for global news and information and is setting a global precedent for distributed translation projects. As Chris wrote in his paper, “With the Internet becoming more multilingual by the day, there is a growing need for local voices to fill in the gaps of ‘global news.’” Just as Global Voices brings local voices to the forefront, Lingua brings those voices to the masses.

8 Comments

  1. Well, personally I think that those “lost context” issue will remain for quite some time since it might not be possible for a person to know all different kinds of phrases or slang etc. from all over the world. The language might be same but the context etc. need not necessarily be same in all parts of the world where that language is spoken since those things are native to a particular place only, they are very local.

    One way I see to overcome this would be to use a wiki. Put all such phrases/contexts on that as the translators come across them & then someone who understands a particular unexplained context can put it in simple english so others can understand it & translate it. This way a knowledge-base can be built up.

    Btw, how about using the “subscribe to comments” plugin on your blog? Makes it easy to be notified of further comments. :)

  2. As far as learning a second language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

    Although it is a living language, it helps language learning as well. Five schools in Britain have introduced this neutral international language, in order to test its propaedeutic values.

    The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester, and the initial results are very encouraging. These can be seen at http://www.springboard2languages.org/Summary%20of%20evaluation,%20S2L%20Phase%201.pdf

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 and a glimpse of Esperanto at http://www.lernu.net

  3. Thanks Amit, passed along the request to my designer (um, yeah, I don’t know how to do stuff like that…)

    Thanks Brian, for your suggestion…since I’m not actually involved with the Lingua project, may I suggest contacting (http://globalvoicesonline.org/lingua/#get-involved) the project?

  4. I was unaware, until recently, of the way that Global Voices works – their (well, the writers who write for it) ability to translate so quickly an article so its available to so many people. Yazan wrote a wonderful article (in English) about my story and it was, over the course of a few weeks, translated into 5 different languages. Truly, I was amazed and, of course, thrilled. I’m not able to say whether the translators had difficulty in preserving the original context, but I can see, on more serious subjects as the one you described above, how this can be an issue. Still, kudos to Global Voices and the Lingua project.

  5. I think you made some good points in your post.

  6. my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

  7. You you could change the webpage subject Jillian C. York » On Lingua and distributed translation to something more specific for your content you write. I enjoyed the post even sononetheless.

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