Can crowdsourcing coexist comfortably with professional translation? Or is it a threat? #xl8

Expanding opportunities for human translators? A bigger slice or, well… just pie in the sky?

In a previous post I suggested that the share of the global translation pie available to professional translators is not shrinking in favour of machines or crowdsourced amateurs,  but rather the whole pie is expanding – potentially to everyone’s ultimate benefit.

As the overall demand for translation continues to increase, the need for “quality human translation” is predicted to outstrip the supply of available language specialists and prices will ultimately rise. Maybe this will signal the final evolutionary step of our industry from its “cottage industry” beginnings to a fully fledged and well-rewarded profession.

Understanding the evolving role of the “other” emerging translation sectors,  crowdsourcing and machine translation, and how they might affect professional translators is not easy, however. Here’s a case in point…

Now, this is Susanna…

She’s one of the most enthusiastic linguists you’re ever likely to come across… and she has a translation problem.

Her family emigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union when she was three years old. With Russian and English giving her a kickstart, she continued to acquire languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Serbo-Croatian) and has even had a go at learning Hebrew, Arabic and Hungarian.

Susanna is an unabashed proselytizer of second language learning. She has her own TV segment in Spanish on San Francisco’s Univision where she gives tips on learning English via songs. Just type “Susanna Zaraysky” into YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of interviews with her including with the BBC [1].

Her experiences in learning foreign languages have led to a book Language Is Music [2] which was also published in Spanish. In her book, she enthusiastically promotes the use of music, TV, radio, movies and other media to enhance second language acquisition in the interests of linguistic diversity.

Linguistic diversity?

But things aren’t going very well for linguistic diversity these days it seems. In a world which seems hell-bent on adopting a single international language, voices like Susanna’s which promote the joy and value of multilingualism and the preservation of our linguistic diversity don’t always get heard.

… and then the other day I received an email from her:

I am considering opening up my Language is Music book to be available online for free in languages besides English under Creative Commons.

She explained that she had come to the conclusion that selling her book for profit had a lower priority than furthering her dream:

As my greater goal is to create a movement to get people speaking foreign languages, the book is just a business card to show that I know my stuff. By having the book available for free, I can circumvent the publishing world which is restrictive, complicated and rarely financially profitable for a small book such as my own.

Susanna is on a not-for-profit crusade for a worthy cause. But making her book available in multiple languages is going to require a lot of work from a lot of people. Translating a book is no simple task – and she knows it. She gained some insight into the complexities of translation when she took on the role of reviser of the Spanish version of her own book:

Even though I was working with a professional Spanish translator, it was still A LOT of work for me to ensure it flowed as I wished.

So what are the options she has to make her book available in multiple languages? Unless she can raise a lot of cash from some philanthropically inspired benefactor to engage a whole team of professional translators she doesn’t have a lot of choices. The lure of crowdsourcing beckons…

Is this a rational approach for Susanna to take?

Her linguistic intuitions and her experience producing the Spanish version of her book has alerted her to the dilemmas, difficulties and ambiguities of “translation quality”:

How would I manage a crowd sourced translation and quality control, especially for languages I don’t know? How could I trust the quality?

Oh Susanna! If you could find a simple answer to this question it would fundamentally change the nature of the translation industry!

The translation blogosphere is full of worthy advice on how to select translators who will deliver that elusive quality called “translation quality” [3]. But ultimately, you face the same sort of dilemma as most other translation buyers: if you don’t know the language yourself there is no realistic way for you to make your own independent judgement. It’s a brutal fact of life. In the final analysis – the best you can do is to do the homework – find out as much as you can about the translators, their experience, their reputation and how they approach the task… and then trust.

Instead of crowdsourcing, how about crowdfunding?

Now, if it’s a good cause, perhaps the “crowd” could be leveraged in a different way. Sites like raise huge sums to fund creative projects – documentaries, books and films etc. The money is raised from people just like you and me – people who are enthusiastic about the project and who want to see it happen. They contribute small sums often as small as $5 and $10 a shot. Tens of thousands of dollars are raised this way  – perhaps enough could be raised to fund a bunch of professional translators and revisers to do the job!

If there’s no money – then there’s always love…

But when there are no funds to pay professionals with good reputations and demonstrated subject expertise, then there is one especially important characteristic which is worth seeking out… love!

Enthusiastic amateur translators who love your subject are likely to have a better chance of doing a great job than amateurs who are willing to pick up a bit of translation work on the side at cheap rates. And then there could be some professionals around who might assist with some “pro bono” work if they think the project is one they can believe in.

If amateur, crowdsourced translators become involved, it might be worth looking at the approach TED has taken to crowdsource translations of its videos (devoted to “ideas worth spreading”) [4]. They recruit translators and amateur linguists who are prepared to do the work – not for pay, but because they are enthusiastic about the topic and are likely to have the right sort of subject knowledge. When looking for translators who will work for love, it’s probably worth looking at TED’s guidelines which require a collaborative approach via “a second pair of eyes on each translation” [5].

There seem to be many approaches to crowdsourced translation – some which clearly have been designed to avoid engaging professionals who expect to be paid. But Susanna’s proposed project seems to me to be a legitimate use of unpaid, crowdsourced translation which doesn’t threaten the livelihoods of professional translators. Unless adequate funds can be raised, it’s the sort of translation project which might not proceed otherwise.

The dilemma of managing the quality of the output, however, remains…

Susanna is looking for specific advice from readers on how she might complete her project:

  • The best approach to take to get the job done – is some variety of “crowdsourcing” the way to go?
  • Idea on managing the translation process, including quality assurance and control;
  • If using volunteer translators and editors is the way to go – how does one find them?
  • What crowdsourcing platforms are available which could be used to manage the work?

If you have any suggestions for Susanna, you are welcome to leave comments here or contact her directly through her webpage


[1] BBC: polyglot explains how to learn languages, foreign languages

[2] Customer reviews on Amazon are here:

[3] Donnie and Trixie have a serious talk about translation quality:

[4] TED – Ideas worth spreading

[5] Becoming a TED translator

This entry was posted in Getting paid and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can crowdsourcing coexist comfortably with professional translation? Or is it a threat? #xl8

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (May 28-June 3) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  2. Seth W says:

    Crowdsourced translation is a topic that has received no small amount of discussion, but I agree with the assertions you’ve made in this article. A “second pair of eyes” is perhaps the single most important aspect of this endeavor, as curation and quality control are the two cogs that absolutely must be in place to make such a system effective and worthwhile.

    That being said, the available crowdsourced translation platforms are typically not suitable for things like immediate, real-world translation, maintaining a need for interpreters to fill the gaps. To this end, people like Susanna will continue to be highly sought-after for diplomatic needs, at least until crowdsourced translation catches up or finds a different approach.

    Here are a couple posts I wrote on crowdsourced translation apps and platforms: (app that attempts real-time translation) (translates webpages while teaching a foreign language — think ReCaptcha)

  3. sean ahner says:

    Crowdsourcing it can be used for many types of translation projects, I think this is the most effective with user or mass generated content that might otherwise not be translated.

  4. essatrout says:

    I am a translator and a fan of crowd-sourcing because it has helped me a lot in my work. I am using this translation tool and several contributors who are working on different languages. Their work is being reviewed by other contributors, so there is no risk, it’s like an ant farm!. The tool works great and the people are well prepared, so I am very satisfied.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s