David Sasaki has put together a remarkable session on translation at the Global Voices conference. It begins with a conversation led by John “Feng 37″ Kennedy in Chinese between the half dozen Chinese speakers in the room, then a five-person conversation in Swahili, led by Ndesanjo Macha, then a lively conversation in Hindi involving about a quarter of the room. David observes that, during each conversation, he saw about half a dozen people smiling, engaged in the conversation, and everyone else ignoring the larger conversation. This is obviously a useful metaphor for some of the challenges we're seeing at Global Voices – how do we amplify, contextualize and translate conversations from all the languages represented online?
Portnoy Zheng leads a project to translate articles from Global Voices into Chinese. His reason for launching the project was a sense that it was very hard to get relavent international news in the Taiwanese mainstream media. He began translating with a story from Indonesia on Global Voices, talking about a plane crash caused by overloading a plane with durian which killed a number of Indonesian politicians (Durian is an inherently funny fruit, which may explain why Portnoy felt compelled to provide a pan-Asian translation.) After translating about 100 posts, he met Rebecca in Taiwan and decided to formalize the project. There's now a site – maintained by about 10 translators – which translates a subset of Global Voices articles. There's no clear guidelines to which ones are included – usually posts that talk about China or north Asia, and often articles about controversy in the Middle East, which Portnoy feels don't get covered closely enough in Chinese media.
David points out that Global Voices currently translates only a small subset of the languages of the blogosphere – we translate content from Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, French, Arabic, Persian, Mandarin, Russian and occasionally Serbian and Ukrainian. In other countries, we neccesarily misrepresent the local conversation, showing off only a few people in the country who happen to be bilingual. He points us to a recent blog post titled “Africa, Global Voices y el anglocentrismo cool”, which argues that if you don't speak English, you don't show up on global voices. David's looking for ways to turn critique like this into involvement – what would be involved with getting the author of this post to help translate GV into Spanish and translate Spanish posts on GV?
David starts outlining some of the questions we're facing in dealing with translation on GV:
– How do we encourage blogger translation? How do we get more people doing this?
– Do we need permission from bloggers before we start translating their work?
– Should we translate non-English comments into English to encourage conversation?
– Should we let people translate all our posts, using the Indymedia model which allows people to click a tab, choose a language and offer their own translation?
This last question raises the issue “Why isn't everything put onto the site also put into MediaWiki, letting people translate on the fly?” The simple answer: maybe it should be – we've not spent enough time thinking through how to making the site translatable. One of our community editors points out that we have to make very careful decisions about what we translate – it's an editorial choice as much as the stories we select for the site.
Two suggestions that got widespread applause and enthusiasm:
– finding a way to reward volunteer translators, perhaps with Amazon Rewards dollars or other currency
– making it possible for people to offer their reading of GV posts in translation from a link on the site.