Crowdsourcing Translations: A Loss for Both Translators and Businesses

The use of crowdsourcing to harness the power of the masses to translate web content has become all the rage at behemoth social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  In an attempt to make these sites accessible to a broader user base, the sites are asking users, rather than professional translators, to collaborate on the translation of site content.  Though it’s a noble goal to expand the reach of sites like Facebook to an international audience, turning to crowdsourcing for translations hurts translators and businesses alike.

LinkedIn, a social network that aims to promote and support professionals, recently polled those members who are professional translators in order to gauge their potential interest in translating the site “for fun” or in exchange for nothing more than a profile badge.  The site generated a great deal of controversy and managed to offend quite a few members, since LinkedIn was clearly looking for something for nothing.  What LinkedIn failed to realize is that asking translators to work for free further devalues a profession that already struggles for recognition.  In fact, many translators deleted their LinkedIn profiles following the incident, as they felt that their professional needs were no longer in line with the site’s priorities.

While the idea of tapping into the collective wisdom of a community has its merits – after all, translators reach out to each other all the time to debate issues in translation, terminology, etc. – websites must acknowledge that their image, content and reputation are at stake when they turn to anyone other than a professional to translate their content.  Interestingly enough, after receiving numerous user complaints about the quality of localized translations, Facebook did turn to professional translators to edit flubbed translations and improve the consistency of translated terms across the site.  Indeed, if websites insist on employing crowdsourcing to cut costs, they must acknowledge that at a bare minimum, professionals should be involved to provide quality control to avoid alienating their user base through poorly rendered content.

At the end of the day, there’s really no substitute for a professional; perhaps crowdsourcing will demonstrate that to companies the hard way.

Will 90% of the world’s languages cease to exist?

A program in BBC radio reveals the following:

  • An estimated 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world. But that number is expected to shrink rapidly in the coming decades.
  • In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.
  • According to Ethnologue, a US organisation that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are currently classified as endangered.

What is lost when a language dies?

As globalisation sweeps around the world, it is perhaps natural that small communities come out of their isolation and seek interaction with the wider world. The number of languages may be an unhappy casualty, but why fight the tide?

“What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage, the way of expressing the relationship with nature, with the world, between themselves in the framework of their families, their kin people,” says French linguist Claude Hagege.

“It´s also the way they express their humour, their love, their life. It is a testimony of human communities which is extremely precious, because it expresses what other communities than ours in the modern industrialized world are able to express.”

For linguists like Claude Hagege, languages are not simply a collection of words. They are a living, breathing organisms holding the connections and associations that define a culture. When a language becomes extinct, the culture in which it lived is lost too.

Cross words

The value of language as a cultural artefact is difficult to dispute, but is it actually realistic to ask small communities to retain their culture?

One linguist, Professor Salikoko Mufwene, of the University of Chicago, has argued that the social and economic conditions among some groups of speakers “have changed to points of no return”.

As cultures evolve, he argues, groups often naturally shift their language use. Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves.

Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis, however, argues that the stakes are much higher. Because of the close links between language and identity, if people begin to think of their language as useless, they see their identity as such as well.

This leads to social disruption, depression, suicide and drug use, he says. And as parents no longer transmit language to their children, the connection between children and grandparents is broken and traditional values are lost.

“There is a social and cultural ache that remains, where people for generations realize they have lost something,” he says.

What no-one disputes is that the demise of languages is not always the fault of worldwide languages like our own.

An increasing number of communities are giving up their language by their own choice, says Claude Hagege. Many believe that their languages have no future and that their children will not acquire a professional qualification if they teach them tribal languages.

Babbling away

Perhaps all is not lost for those who want the smaller languages to survive. As the revival of Welsh in the UK and Mouri in New Zealand suggest, a language can be brought back from the brink.

Hebrew, says Claude Hagege, was a dead language at the beginning of the 19th century. It existed as a scholarly written language, but there was no way to say “I love you” and “pass the salt” – the French linguists’ criteria for detecting life.

But with the “strong will” of Israeli Jews, he says, the language was brought back into everyday use. Now it is undeniably a living breathing language once more.

Closer to home, Cornish intellectuals, inspired by the reintroduction of Hebrew, succeeded in bringing the seemingly dead Cornish language back into use in the 20th Century. In 2002 the government recognised it as a living minority language.

But for many dwindling languages on the periphery of global culture, supported by little but a few campaigning linguists, the size of the challenge can seem insurmountable.

“You’ve got smallest, weakest, least resourced communities trying to address the problem. And the larger communities are largely unaware of it,” says Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis.

“We would spend an awful lot of money to preserve a very old building, because it is part of our heritage. These languages and cultures are equally part of our heritage and merit preservation.”

Some Statistics

  • 6% of the worlds languages are spoken by 94% of the world’s population
  • The remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the population
  • The largest single language by population is Mandarin (845 million speakers) followed by Spanish (329 million speakers) and English (328 million speakers).
  • 133 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people

SOURCE: Ethnologue

The Use of Neutral Spanish for the U.S. Hispanic Market

There is little doubt about the growing influence of the Hispanic demographic in the United States.  According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos comprise 14.8% of the population for a total of 44.3 million people.  What’s more, Hispanics are projected to account for almost 25% of the total U.S. population by the year 2050.[1]  The incredible cultural and linguistic diversity of the U.S. Hispanic population presents a challenge for retailers and other businesses who want to reach out to the Latino segment and harness the economic potential within that group.  So, how does one effectively communicate with and market to an audience consisting of cultures from across the Spanish-speaking world?  The answer lies in the use of neutral Spanish.

When creating advertising campaigns, website content, or other materials geared toward the U.S. Hispanic audience, companies are wise to consider the use of neutral Spanish, which avoids regionalisms, colloquial language, and certain verb tenses and conjugations that hint at a particular dialect.  Translators and writers employing neutral Spanish seek to produce a text that is universally understood by Spanish speakers.  Given the dynamic nature of the Latino community, a translator should have contact with the Hispanic market in the U.S. in order to make the best decisions regarding word choice.

The use of neutral Spanish for Latino audiences is gaining traction in television and radio as well.  The rise in popularity of neutral Spanish on the airwaves signals a real change in how U.S. Hispanics view themselves as a unique community apart from their respective countries of origin.  Ilan Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, notes, “It is a widespread trend that is quite significant because it says much about how Latinos in the U.S. are consolidating their own identity.”

Though neutral Spanish lacks an equivalent in the real world (think Received Pronunciation in the U.K. or Standard American English in the U.S.), erasing traces of a telltale accent from spoken Spanish or country-specific slang from the written word serves to avoid confusing or even offending the audience and goes a long way in appealing to the broad Hispanic demographic in the United States.

[1] Hispanic Population of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau


Machine Translation or Human Translation?

CNN published an article explaining the different approaches from Google and Facebook to translating their webs. Below you will find some highlights:

Facebook aims to translate the Web using an army of volunteers and some hired professional translators. Meanwhile, Google plans to let computers do most of the work. Which method will ultimately prevail remains to be seen.

But for now, here’s a look at the latest language features from both companies, and some background on how their translation services work. (Feel free to add your own Internet translation tips — and fun translation bloopers — in the comments section at the bottom of the story):

Facebook’s human translation

Many tech bloggers think Facebook’s method of human translation seems promising. After all, the American-born social networking site introduced non-English languages for the first time only in January 2008. Now about 70 percent of Facebook’s 300 million users are outside of the United States.

How it works: Real people are at the heart of Facebook translation plan. They suggest translated phrases and vote on translations that others have submitted. These crowd-sourced edits — which work kind of like Wikipedia — make Facebook’s translation service smarter over time. Go to Facebook’s translation page to check it out or to participate.

Size: More than 65 languages function on Facebook now, according to Facebook’s statistics. At least another 30 languages are in the works, meaning Facebook needs help working out the kinks on those languages before they’re put to use.

What’s new? Facebook announced in a blog post on September 30 that the social network has made its crowd-sourced translation technology available to other sites on the Web. The update allows sites to install a translation gadget on their sites through Facebook Connect, a service that lets Facebook users sign in on other Web pages.

Facebook also added some new languages, including Latin and “Pirate,” which translates the Facebooky word “share” as “blabber t’yer mates!”

Pros and cons: People are good at knowing idioms and slang, so Facebook tends to get these right, but there are limited numbers of multi-lingual volunteers who want to spend time helping Facebook translate things.

Also, Facebook’s site is available in many languages, but its human translators don’t touch wall posts, photo comments and other user-submitted items, which is a big con if you want to have friends who don’t share a common language with you. People who use Facebook Connect to translate their sites can choose which text they want users to help translate, according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.

Craig Ulliott, founder of, said he’s excited about Facebook’s translation application, but it would be too much to ask his site’s users to translate user-submitted material.

Google’s ‘mechanical’ translation

Google uses mathematical equations to try to translate the Web’s content. This fits in line with the company’s mission, which is to organize the world’s information and make it useful and accessible to all.

How it works: Google’s computers learn how to be translators by examining text that’s already on the Web, and from professional Web translations posted online, said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google. The more text is out there, the more Google learns and the better its translations become. The search-engine company currently translates documents, search results and full Web pages.

Size: Google claims to be the largest free language translation service online. It covers 51 languages and more than 2,500 language pairs. The site’s interface has been translated, with the help of Google users, into 130 languages.

What’s new?: Google recently created a widget that any Web developer can put on his or her page to offer up Google translations. So, say you’re a blogger who writes about music. You might get some Brazilian readers if you offered up a button to translate your site into Portuguese.

Google also recently unveiled a translation service for Google Docs, which lets anyone upload a document to the Web and have it translated into a number of languages for free. And there’s a new Firefox add-on from Google to help people translate the Web more quickly.

Och said real-time translation of Internet chats is on the horizon, as are more languages and increased quality as Google’s computers get smarter.

Pros and cons: Google’s computerized approach means it can translate tons of content — and fast. But computers aren’t quite up to speed with ever-evolving modern speech, so reports of translation errors are fairly common.

On the plus side, the service has been vastly improved in the last five years, Och said. Also, Google lets people spot translation errors, suggest new wordings and translate its interface into languages Google’s computers don’t speak just yet.

Related Articles:
Machine Translation vs. Human Translation: Pay Less, Get Less
Google Translate and the Struggle for Accurate Machine Translations
Google Strikes Deal to Translate European Patents
When Never to Use Google Translate

Lunfardo: The Slang of Buenos Aires

Argentine Spanish is peppered with words and phrases from Lunfardo, a vast vocabulary developed on the streets of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 19th century.  Criminals and other shady characters looking to keep their activities under wraps developed Lunfardo by borrowing and twisting words from the melting pot of languages that surrounded them, allowing them to communicate with each other even in the presence of the police or prison guards.  While initially used by the more unsavory element of Argentine society, Lunfardo was later popularized through the tango, literary art forms, and upwardly mobile immigrants and has become a part of everyday, informal speech regardless of social class.  Today, the use of Lunfardo is most prevalent in Argentina (particularly in and around Buenos Aires) and Uruguay, though some elements have been adopted by neighboring countries such as Chile and Paraguay.

Lunfardo was largely a product of the great wave of European immigration to Argentina that took place from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s.  The huge influx of immigrants hailing from Spain, Italy and France, many of whom spoke non-standard regional dialects or languages, greatly influenced the development of Lunfardo.  Certain words also arrived via the gauchos from Argentina’s interior as well as from native groups like the Guaraní, Quechua and Mapuche.

One of the features of Lunfardo is the use of vesre, a form of wordplay that involves reversing the order of syllables in a word.  The term “vesre” is derived from the Spanish word “revés” (in reverse/backwards).  Examples of vesre include café → feca (coffee), pantalones → lompa (a truncated form of the word for pants) and hotel → telo (a pay-by-the-hour love motel).

In addition to vesre, Lunfardo also employs words based on metaphors such as tumbero, a slang term for “convict” that originates from the Spanish word “tumba” meaning grave.  Another example is the word “campana” (Spanish for “bell”), which describes the lookout man ready to sound the alarm should the police suddenly arrive on the scene.

For those of you looking to add a splash of color to your Spanish, the following website has compiled an extensive list of Lunfardo words and phrases: Diccionario de Lunfardo.

Some Lunfardo words added to our blog:

Meaning of “guita

Lunfardo: Money Talk

Meaning of Atorrante

See also: Linguistic Features of Rioplatense (River Plate) Spanish

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Payment Methods for Freelance Translators in US and Abroad

Translators around the world have never had it so good.  With the translation business blooming, they seek to stand a lot from their work. The methods by which translators get paid are many and varied. Many agencies prefer to pay their clients through ACH or Automated Clearing House, in which, it is possible to deposit money directly into the translator’s bank account with the help of electronic financial transactions. Known as direct deposit method, it offers great convenience.

Image courtesy of

Another payment method that has become popular with both employers and translators is Paypal.  Paypal basically is an e-commerce website which allows transactions to be made electronically. It has become a great platform for companies and organizations to pay their translators without the need of traveling or any paper-work.  Withdrawal or transactions from the Paypal account to bank account and credit cards are possible. It is free to register and is a highly cost-effective option for many translators worldwide.

Moneybookers is also an international e-wallet system that allows for electronic transactions. The money employers pay can be directly credited to the Moneybooker’s account.  Money can be then withdrawn from the account to a bank account or onto a credit card. Electronic transfer is possible only if the bank the translators use is connected to a SWIFT network and it does not operate in some countries.

Wire transfer can also be used to transfer money from one bank account to the other all over the world. All international bank transfers work along with the SWIFT system. Wire transfers are very fast, however, international wire transfers can prove to be very expensive. The entire process related to the transactions is very complicated as all the details regarding bank accounts have to be completely accurate before proceeding to the next step. Transactions can occur within minutes if they are within the same country and a few days if they are of international nature.

These days many of the organizations offer their own credit card with the help of services such as Payoneer. Translators can transfer funds from their online account into the credit card and then use it according to their requirement. Thus, the number of payment methods offered to translators are numerous and depending on their preference and requirements, a particular payment method can be chosen which both the employer and translator are compatible with.

Delicate work in translation

A letter to the New York Times Book Review complained that Gerald Martin, the biographer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, had not given due respect to Marquez’s translators. Martin raves about Marquez’s “gorgeous sentences,” but the letter writer complains that he “neglects to mention whether he read those sentences in Spanish or English.” I have often wondered as I am reading a translation how much I am indebted to the original author, how much to the translator.

I’ve heard that the Prendergast translation of Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past is better than the old Moncrieff version, the one I own. When I finally get around to reading the novel, would my experience be heightened if I bought the new one?

I don’t know any language well enough to translate, but I did have a glimmer of the practice when I studied Russian for four years. Professor Pastuhova told me that I spoke Russian with a Boston accent and hinted that the only reason I passed her courses was that I could translate the literature into good English. She had been the tutor of Tolstoi’s grandchildren – her passion was Russian literature. I had to go word by word, using my Russian-English dictionary, but I found that I was reading the work with wonderful concentration. I fancied that I got further into its soul.

I inherited my grandfather’s interlinear New Testament and was so enthralled with it that I bought myself an interlinear Old Testament. Reynolds Price, in his book of essays, A Palpable God, explained why, as a novelist, he decided to translate some parts of the Bible, knowing no Greek or Hebrew. He convinced me to do the same. Scholars have suggested that some of the psalms might have been written by a woman in King David’s court. I looked for one that seemed to be from a woman’s point of view, chose 139, and using my interlinear Old Testament and, aided by commentaries, I translated it. Even though I was faithful to the text, I could give it a spin, emphasizing what a woman thinks of her body. I better understood the rhythm, form and certainly the meaning of the psalm.

My friend Jo-Anne Elder has published a book of short stories as well as poetry and essays, but she is better known as a translator. Two of her translations of Acadian literature have been nominated for Governor General’s Awards. How do juries choose between translations of very different kinds of books? Do they look for those that are unusually faithful to the original or for those that read as though they were originally written in the new language?

Herménégilde Chiasson invented a brilliant poetic form in his Beatitudes, hundreds of lines beginning “those who;” the reader supplies the “blessed are.” Elder translates one as “those who sing at the top of their lungs during storms.” Is the rhythm of the line as good in French, presenting the same vivid picture?

Elder at first translated Acadian poetry in collaboration with the poet Fred Cogswell. Cogswell told me that translating was like doing a crossword puzzle, a good activity while he was watching a baseball game. I’m sure it’s not that easy.

For my The Writing on the Wall project at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Nela Rio’s Spanish poem was translated into French by Elder and poet Rose Després and into English by Hugh Hazelton. Elder wrote me, “I noticed (I think!) that Hugh took a couple of liberties, so I did, too, for the rhythm, which was so strong in the poem. I’ve tried to make it contemplative, because that’s how I heard it.”

The NotaBle Acts theatre festival of New Brunswick plays opened with On and Off the Shelf, an Acadian play by Marcel-Romain Thériault translated by Elder. Translating plays must present a different set of problems from translating poetry. The dialogue has to sound authentic and yet has to convey more meaning than real speech does. The original title is Disponibles en librairie – “available at bookstores.” Why the change? The question is often asked: “What got lost in translation?” Even if you’ve learned another language so well you can translate it into your mother language, can you ever know the nuances and the emotions associated with words and phrases that a child learns instinctively? I frequently weep in church when we sing a hymn that was part of my childhood but never weep when we sing those I’ve been singing at Wilmot United for 44 years.

When I read Marquez, I am getting plot and characterization but not his actual words. We say that Shakespeare is all about language, but his plays have always been revered in other tongues. I think it must be that languages other than our own, although incomprehensible to us when spoken, have an essence we recognize.

Nancy Bauer is an arts columnist who lives in Fredericton. She can be reached at


Translators Wanted at LinkedIn. The Pay? $0 an Hour.

About half of the 42 million members of LinkedIn, the online professional networking Web site, are outside the United States, and to further expand internationally, the company hopes to be translated into more than its current four languages — English, Spanish, French and German. But when LinkedIn asked thousands of its translator members to complete a survey this month that asked whether they would consider volunteering to translate the site into other languages, many said “nyet.”

Chris Irwin, who lives outside London, was irked by the third multiple-choice question, which asked what “incentive” translators would prefer, with five nonmonetary choices including an upgraded LinkedIn account and none (“because it’s fun”). Mr. Irwin checked a sixth choice, “Other,” typing in that he would prefer cash. In a phone interview, Mr. Irwin said he was surprised that LinkedIn “would have the effrontery to ask for a professional service for free.”

Another translator, Matthew Bennett, who is based in Murcia in Spain, started a group on LinkedIn for those annoyed by the survey, and it swelled to about 300.

Some translators are upset because LinkedIn showed “an enormous amount of disrespect towards them and their work from a networking site for professionals where ‘relationships matter,’ ” wrote Mr. Bennett on his personal blog, referring to one of LinkedIn’s marketing slogans.

But LinkedIn insists that the interpreters are, well, misinterpreting.

Nico Posner, the LinkedIn product manager who circulated the survey, declined to be interviewed but in a post to Mr. Bennett’s group wrote that the survey was not asking translators to volunteer per se. He said he was trying to find out whether they would consider “crowd sourcing,” borrowing the term applied to companies like Wikipedia that rely on volunteers’ collective wisdom.

“While I realize that many professionals in the translation and localization field will not be interested in participating in a crowd sourcing opportunity on LinkedIn,” Mr. Posner wrote, others “would welcome an opportunity to volunteer some of their time and skills towards translating the LinkedIn site and highlight their professional work on their LinkedIn profile, not only for pride and glory, but hopefully to land more paid work.”

In a post on LinkedIn’s company blog, Mr. Posner added that thousands of respondents said they would volunteer, especially if credited on the site.

“I didn’t feel cheapened or exploited at all when they asked,” said Erika Baker, of North Somerset, England. “I just thought, ‘Wow what an opportunity.’ ” A translator for more than 15 years, Ms. Baker said that she had rarely been credited as she would be on the LinkedIn project and that she was certain it would bring in paying work.

“These are new ways of marketing, and the Internet is really the way to go,” Ms. Baker said.

Recently a group of illustrators took umbrage when Google asked them to provide free artwork to feature on its Chrome browser; Google countered that it was offering free exposure and that dozens of other artists had signed on.

In 2007, Facebook asked volunteers to offer translations of the standard explanatory language throughout the site into more than 20 languages, with translators voting among themselves for preferred verbiage. Some faulted the company, saying it was shortchanging translators.

But Nataly Kelly, a former Spanish translator who is an analyst at Common Sense Advisory, a research firm that studies how companies translate, said that Facebook’s critics had missed the big picture.

“It would have been far cheaper for Facebook to pay translators 10 cents a word to translate material than to build a community and pay engineers to set up all this infrastructure,” said Ms. Kelly, who volunteered on the Facebook project herself, casting a vote on such head-scratchers as what to call the Facebook profile “wall,” since in Spanish there are different words for interior and exterior walls.

Web sites may expand using volunteer translators, but they often also pay for work, not only in editing and proofreading the volunteers’ efforts, but also in translating content that requires less local flavor and more legal precision, like privacy policies, Ms. Kelly said.

But Ms. Kelly is sympathetic to translators, who “are often taken advantage of and paid late if at all,” and said LinkedIn had acted undiplomatically.

“It might have been more appropriate for LinkedIn to make it very clear what kind of process this was, and the fact that they employ full-time translators, to appease the fears of translators,” Ms. Kelly said. “That would have prevented a lot of the backlash.”


Offline Resources for Translators

As a freelance translator, you probably have both a virtual library of resources and tools as well as an actual resource library.  Most likely your virtual library is beefier because so much of a translator’s work is done on the computer.  Translation memories, glossaries, forums that help you with difficult terms, translator community forums all make freelance translation work much easier.  Online resources have the added benefit of being constantly updated and through online communities, you can get answers and advice almost in real-time.

But having paper resources available can get you through times when your Internet connection fails and reacquaint you with the tactile pleasures of flipping through a book for help rather than scrolling through yet another web page.

Your translation library should have a selection from each of the following categories: the general practice and craft of translation; translation theory and study; works devoted specifically to your specialty in both the target and source language; and comprehensive dictionaries and grammar books.

Where can you find exhaustive lists of books and articles that can facilitate your work? Online, of course!

Transpanish’s online list of translation books for the Spanish-English translation is the first place to start when considering what you’ll need for your library. This list includes not only general guides for English-Spanish translation and grammar but also more specific dictionaries for various specialties, such as finance, law, and medicine.

While many books and articles in this bibliography are specific to Bible translation, others are more general resources about translation theory.  The bibliography also includes a few works about using gender-neutral language.

Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications, written by Jeremy Munday and published by Routledge is not only an introductory textbook but it also includes an extensive bibliography from which you can take notes to expand your collection.

SIL International offers the granddaddy of all bibliographies online, with over 20,000 entries in various topics both directly related to translation and ancillary to the field.  Click here for an overview of this bibliography.

Translators are researchers and information gatherers at heart, so please enjoy some of these resources to start a collection of books that will enhance your practice of the translation craft!