Global: The polyglot internet and translation exchange

Lingua ProjectGlobal Voices has recently been awarded a grant by the Ford Foundation to support our work with Lingua, our translation project, and to research and develop a project to investigate how we might design and support an online translation exchange community.

We began discussing the implications of the polyglot internet several years ago, after translators spontaneously began translating the Global Voices site into Mandarin. Translators from other language communities got together to form Lingua after Global Voices’ 2006 summit in Delhi. Lingua today translates Global Voices content into 15 languages, with another five languages in testing. For a thorough overview of the project, see Lingua co-Director Leonard Chien's timeline, and Chris Salzberg's excellent slideshow presentation and paper.

View Lingua translators around the world in a larger map

The Lingua initiative, driven almost entirely by the enthusiasm, creativity, and the efforts of volunteer translators, demonstrates the capacity for a community of like-minded translators and writers to bridge language barriers to share stories and information, based on a simple, nontechnical platform. Lingua points to the value of human effort and the importance of culture and community in choosing what to translate. It has also demonstrated the value of distributed human translation as a means of quickly translating a large quantity of current and topical information.

The idea for a translation exchange as a parallel and complimentary project to Lingua began in response to the larger challenge of the polyglot internet: that, with over 1.3 billion Internet users, any one of us is only seeing a small slice of existing content, based on our language capacities. The issue was addressed during our 2008 Summit in Budapest, both in presentations by members of the Lingua team (see  and in numerous conversations on the side. Ethan Zuckerman captures the phenomenon in this post – and in its English translation.

We have at present notional ideas about how a translation exchange might work and how it would fit with the existing, loose and innovative community that is Lingua. Our first challenge is to ask a lot of knotty, interesting questions about translation communities and culture, the economics of distributed production, and the nature of demand for translated news and information for a variety of media sources, and then, to see if we can make something interesting out of the answers. Our hunch is that we'll be working mostly on building communities, rather than making tools.

We want to work on simple, participatory, web-based “translation memory” systems, that would allow us to do things such as store past translations of complex phrases and maintain a common translated vocabulary. There are some good tools out there  to facilitate translation, such as World Wide Lexicon and dotSub, so we'll be asking how to integrate tools into communities of practice.

We also want to see whether an exchange platform can provide easier connections between the best of citizen media stories and media who might be interested in commissioning translations of specific subjects. For instance, whether the good folks at New America Media would find an exchange helpful in providing content for their 2000 ethnic media partner publications, to get them content from around the world in appropriate languages.

What's clear is that there is space for projects that work in the gap between existing information content providers in many languages, and the possibility of a translation exchange that could help open up a lot of content that was previously not accessible because of language barriers, and a lack of access to efficient and inexpensive translation. This includes information providers looking for new ways to get news from other language communities, development organizations seeking to ensure information about their issues are available in multiple languages, and probably lots of other uses we haven't considered because there's no platform like this at present.

We're at early stages with this initiative. Here's a link to an announcement for a project manager – some of you might be interested in applying! Our intention is to build a community of interest around the project – as with all GV projects, we recognize that the best ideas often come from practice and collaboration. Some of us will be gathering at Open Translation Tools 2009 in Amsterdam to kick off the discussion (registration open). We're also gathering initial ideas and inviting conversation on the Global Voices wiki – feel free to join in!


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