Speaking in tongues: how the crowd is transforming translationApril 12th, 2011 by Jani Penttinen
And while keyboards are somewhat faster than chisels, the hassle involved in translating text hasn’t changed much since Moses tried to tweet the Ten Commandments: you have to find a translator, negotiate the price, send the text, and then wait a few days for it to come back.
Because this process is both expensive and time consuming, we’re used to avoiding it. Usually we only translate documents when we have to, such as an application for a foreign visa or an instruction manual for a product to be sold overseas.
Machine translation, such as Google Translate, has been around for a few years, but quality is still an issue. It is a great tool when you personally need to understand some foreign text, but it falls far short of the standard required for publishing.
Enter the crowd
In the last year translations have entered the era of crowdsourcing, transforming the industry profoundly. There are now numerous crowdsourced translation providers, each with thousands of translators on call. They provide native speakers, professional translators, or a mix of the two.
This has changed the industry in several key ways. The first is time. Through these networks you can always get a translator instantly. You can’t pick who does the work (this is the idea of crowdsourcing after all…), but you can choose if you want the work to be done by a native speaker or a certified translator. (Most of the time all you really care about is that a qualified translator translates the text.) Without the normal administrative hassle and waiting, turnaround time is only as long as it takes the individual to translate the text, which is about 200 words per hour for a professional translator.
The second change is cost. With translators working from home via the internet, overheads plunge. This makes it cheaper of course, but also means you can translate short pieces of text, or even single words. Short sentences introduce a problem with potential ambiguity when the translator is not familiar with the product, but all the translator networks allow you to submit additional instructions that help the translator understand what it is that you wish to say.
API: A fan of man
But perhaps the most significant change is that these networks can now be controlled through an application programming interface (API). This means that the ordering of translations can be fully automated, while the actual work is performed by real human beings. This opens up a whole new world of innovation.
Take PremiumFanPage (PFP) as a completely random example (it is pure coincidence that I am CEO and founder). Using an API and an army of crowdsourced translators around the world, it can automatically read text from social media streams, translate it, and make it available online.
This means, for example, that you can write a tweet in English at any time of the day, knowing that the tweet will also appear in Japanese and French a few minutes later. Traditionally this would involve a lot of tedious work per tweet, but PFP can automate the entire process. The efficiency, low overhead costs and quick turnaround time mean that even large quantities of small tasks are now economic.
Still unsure? Talk to a professional
As with anything, some people are skeptical of crowdsourced translations. Some see crowdsourcing as a hobby, rather than a professional service. This probably stems from Facebook’s early success with the concept, where anyone could help translate the site’s user interface.
But the Facebook-model is only one form of crowdsourced translation. As mentioned above, there are now a number of networks of professionals who are paid to do small individual tasks. Because you pay for the work you can expect professional quality in return.
Another criticism is that pay is too low to attract qualified translators. In some cases this is valid, but we need to keep in mind that the industry is very young. There is pressure to increase the levels of pay, and at the same time new and innovative business applications may help justify higher price brackets for those who require the highest quality work.
Despite these concerns, the industry is developing rapidly. Getting tweets automatically translated to a number of languages within minutes of posting them is very exciting, but I believe we are just at the beginning of a whole new era. In years to come, the language will no longer be a barrier of entry to new markets. We are one huge step closer to a world where everyone can understand each other, and participate in a global marketplace.