At around 30,000 feet somewhere between San Francisco and Boston I was holding back tears. Okuribito is one of the most beautiful, haunting movies I’ve ever seen.

Don’t ask me where I heard about it. Might have been Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, or just ESP. But somewhere, at some point, my buddy Georgia made the recommendation … and Georgia has yet to make a recommendation that disappointed.

So, forgive me keepers of legalities and moralities, but I downloaded the film using BitTorrent. Along with the video file itself, the download also included a SubRip file which, when played with VLC player, automatically inserts English subtitles over the Japanese-language movie. Clearly I’m not alone in my feelings toward the film – it won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and also the Japan Academy Award for Film of the Year.

It was so moving, in fact, that an amateur Japanese-to-English translator who calls himself 8thSin decided to translate and subtitle the entire film, line by line, for free and without any compensation. 8thSin, on his user page, says:

I went to Japan for elementary school, and I was fluent in Japanese by the time I left Japan. After discovering D-addicts in 2004, I started watching a lot of Japanese TV programs again and started fansubbing in 2005. Even though I’m a college student now in the US, fansubbing is still a serious hobby of mine. As I said before in many occasions, I fansub for myself. I think it’s the best way of maintaining and improving my proficiency in Japanese. I also like to share works I really enjoyed, which is another reason for me to fansub. I hope to help more people appreciate Japanese entertainment.

The same motivations – maintaining proficiency in a language, sharing good media, and helping others better understand a foreign culture – are shared by the hundreds of volunteer translators at Global Voices who use their spare time to translate a post from one language to another. Most either live in a different country (with a different language) from where they were born. Or they are married to someone from another country and culture. By sharing the bridges between those two cultures with others, they are able to create a sense of community across boundaries that normally define communities in the first place.

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Digital communities based on social translation of cultural content are starting to emerge all over the internet. For years now sites like World Wide Lexicon, Cucumis, and dotSUB have been building tools which they hoped would attract large communities of volunteer translators. But they were neutral about what kind of content would be translated, and that has probably contributed to their relative obscurity. Volunteer translation, after all, is a type of fan culture. Translators on Global Voices volunteer their time because they are fans of Global Voices. Similarly, The Eco Team translates the Economist every week because they are fans of the magazine, and the same is true of TED to China.

In order for social translation to be successful, a group of bi-lingual fans of a particular cultural genre must organize online.

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At Global Voices we have been thinking a lot about social translation over the past few years. Language, after all, is the most difficult and most time-consuming barrier standing in the way of global conversation. Chris Salzberg, who just recently published his Ph.D. thesis about Global Voices as a case study of social translation (hopefully available online soon), has written previously about the similarities between fan translation communities and Global Voices’ translation project.

It is now time to put some of our thinking and theorizing into action. Thanks to the support of the Ford Foundation we will start a “translation exchange” project which hopes to come up with better tools and workflows for the social translation of citizen media and independent media. There are certainly many ways that we can improve upon the methods by which Global Voices posts are translated, and in doing so I believe we can come up with ideas and systems for other groups who want to build translation communities around their content. I have a feeling that this will require a focus on the ever-undervalued art of building community more than building tools.

Two easy wins occur to me right away. First is forming a partnership with The Extraordinaries, a smart phone application, which allows anyone with a smart phone to volunteer five minutes of their spare time for a good cause. Here is how it would work:

The second easy win is to form a partnership with a major language learning school like Berlitz, which has more than 470 schools in over 70 countries. As a former language instructor, I can still hear the moans and groans every time I asked my students to open up their workbooks to practice the same boring translations with the same boring fictional characters. I know that they would have been so much more motivated to practice their translations if compelling online content written by everyday people around the world were incorporated into their curriculum. (To my horror, my students were always excited to translate the lyrics of Jon Bon Jovi songs, which meant I had to listen to them about twenty times a day.) We should also form a partnership with Livemocha to incorporate the translation of relevant content into their online language learning tutorials.

These are just a few quick ideas. I’m sure many more will emerge out of our discussions in late June at Open Translation Tools 2009 in Amsterdam. (Registration still open.)

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