This week I’m in Perugia, a central Italian, pre-Roman village that sits on a high bluff overlooking a sea of impossibly green pasture that is tucked in each evening by a thin blanket of sunset-tinted fog. The surrounding National Geographic-like views are a reminder of the importance of keeping your enemies in clear sight. Perugia, famous as a study abroad Mecca for young Americans and East Asians, is also home to the annual Umbria Jazz Festival, Bacci chocolates, and the International Journalism Festival, which predictably is why I am here along with a team of Global Voices colleagues including Portnoy, Marc, Bernardo, and nearly the entire army of the Global Voices in Italian team.

Yesterday afternoon Portnoy, Marc, Bernardo and I spoke on a panel about social translation and its relevance for the news industry. Portnoy began by recounting his personal journey as Global Voices’ first volunteer translator. He liked both the ethos and the content of Global Voices, he said, and wanted to introduce it to Taiwanese bloggers. So, without asking any permission, he simply began translating posts he found interesting from English into Chinese. Today content from Global Voices is regularly translated into over twenty different languages.

I followed Portnoy with a more general overview of the wide range of social translation initiatives that have cropped up over the past few years. I began with a local example that was introduced to me by Rome resident Antonio Lopez. Here in Italy there are two groups of volunteer translators who record, subtitle, and distribute the latest episodes of Lost each week. The two groups compete both in terms of quality and the amount of time that it takes after an episode is first aired in the US to distribute it with subtitles via BitTorrent here in Italy. Over the years, the quality of the translations have improved and subtitled versions are now available just a few hours after the episodes first air.

Another example of social translation that pre-dates the era of blogging and Web 2.0 platforms is “scanlation“, the process of scanning, translating, editing, and re-distributing comic books, especially manga from Japan. These unauthorized translations are distributed as complete PDFs on BitTorret and via IRC chat rooms.

A similar initiative in China translates whole copies of the Economist magazine into Chinese and re-distributes them as print-quality PDF’s on the Eco China web forum.

While social translation – the unpaid translation of information and art – has existed since language itself, the social web brings about new possibilities for coordinated, systematic platforms and workflows. Examples of social translation websites include Wikipedia, which is available in over 100 languages. (Students at Effat University in Saudi Arabia recently used Google’s Translator Toolkit to translate over 100,000 words from the English Wikipedia into Arabic.)

TEDtoChina began as an unauthorized project that offered summaries of TED talks in Chinese. When TED found out about the project they didn’t send a cease and desist letter; they took the idea and ran with it, launching a highly interactive social translation community to encourage the volunteer subtitling of TED videos into as many languages as possible. There are now around 6,500 translations of TED talks by 2,500 volunteer translators in 75 different languages.

Global Lives is a long-running art project that looks at a day in the life of 12 individuals from different countries, cultures, and circumstances around the globe. The raw footage is available on the website, but is best experienced as an art installation. You walk into a dome of screens, each one simultaneously playing continuous footage documenting the lives of Edith Kaphuka from Malawi, James Bullock from San Francisco, Dusan Lazic from Serbia, and many others. When one person’s day becomes boring, another screen catches your interest. To translate the raw footage from its original language into English (and sometimes other languages as well) the Global Lives team relied on Facebook and dotSUB. For example, a Facebook group was started to translate the video of Edith Kaphuka from Malawi into English. They reached out to Malawians living in the United States and Canada, many of whom dedicated a small amount of time to help in the collective effort.

Meedan uses a combination of machine and volunteer translation to encourage cross-cultural discussion between English and Arabic speakers around events taking place in the Middle East:

The Arabic word ‘meedan’ – ميدان – means ‘a town square’ or ‘gathering place.’ is a digital town square where you can share conversation and links about world events with speakers outside your language community. Everything that gets posted on is mirrored in Arabic and English – whether it’s the headlines you read, the comments you write, or the articles you share.

Translated By Humans” is a similar project with an innovative editing platform that allows users to translate content between English, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Lithuanian. Like Global Voices, their content is categorized by topic, original author, and translator. Translations can be marked both public or private.

Yeeyan is another major player in the social translation field in China. The site was shut down for a couple months, but is now back online and active. Volunteers on the site translate a range of content (mostly about technology) from English into Chinese. They have also experimented in content partnerships with The Guardian and CBS.

I ended by referencing Jaqi Aru, a “community of bilingual and trilingual residents of El Alto, Bolivia committed to promoting the use of the Aymara indigenous language on the Internet.” Their about statement goes on: “Through translation projects and the creation of content using digital media we want to contribute and enrich content in our language in cyberspace.”

To underline the importance of Jaqi Aru I need to go back to the creation of Global Voices in 2004. Global Voices began with a small meeting of twenty or so cross-cultural “bridge-bloggers” from places like Malaysia, China, Kenya, Iraq, and Iran. We were over-educated, traveled frequently, and spoke English fluently. Because of this we all felt that we belonged to a cohesive, global community and that our blog posts linking to each other were forming the basis of a new and exciting global conversation. In 2004, the vast majority of Arab bloggers wrote in English because 1) they wanted to be part of this global community and 2) there simply wasn’t much of an online, Arabic-speaking audience to read their content. Today those same bloggers are now writing in Arabic and there are far more Arabic blog posts published every day than any one person could possibly track. (Though Amira and our Middle East team on Global Voices do a pretty great job.)

The Arabic-language blogosphere took shape because it reached a critical mass. At some point Arab bloggers realized that it would be more rewarding to write in Arabic – to communicate with their own communities – than to write in English in order to be part of a vague sense of global community. Ideally we would all blog in at least two languages to be both local and global. Arabic is such a major language that it was only a matter of time until a critical mass of bloggers and, importantly, blog readers developed. But the vast majority of languages around the world do not have an online critical mass and their disappearance is accelerating as, for example, Aymara speakers abandon their native tongue in order to take part in the rich information and social capital available online in Spanish.

We don’t yet know if Jaqi Aru will be successful in creating a critical mass of Aymara-language bloggers, but we do know that it would never take place unless someone started somewhere. (Ruben Hilari from Jaqi Aru will speak about the project at the Global Voices Summit in Chile in a couple weeks.)

Media companies can learn from social translation initiatives. Specifically:

  • Treat your audience as collaborators. Respect them and invite them to help translate your content for free in order to distribute it across linguistic divides. Recognize them when they do.
  • Learn how to use cheap tools. Media companies pay ridiculous amounts for professional translators and proprietary software when cheap – often free – tools exist.
  • Instead of paying costly, monolingual journalists to parachute into a region, translate local news from local sources and add context so that your audience can better understand the stories.

Some major newspapers are starting to get it. La Stampa here in Italy, for example, is able to keep up their coverage of international news by regularly translating and publishing content from Global Voices in Italian.

Four years ago, Portnoy and I were speaking on another panel about translation and the internet – at the 2006 Global Voices Summit in Delhi. Just like this time around, we prepared our talk about an hour before we gave it. It inspired several people in the audience to start their own versions of Global Voices in other languages. Soon “Global Voices in Chinese” was joined by French, then Spanish, and now Global Voices content is regularly translated into twenty different languages by 300 volunteers and is one of the biggest success stories of online social translation. I believe that most of these volunteer translators dedicate their time to the project in order to be part of a global community that is not grounded in monolingualism (though, admittedly, English is still the fundamental bridge language). Last night at dinner with Portnoy, Marc, and the Global Voices Italian team I was reminded once again of just what a special community we have.