Translating the US State of the Union

Every year in late January, the President of the United States gives a speech to both houses of Congress, reporting on the “state of the union” and what lies ahead in the coming year. Of course, it’s not just the United States Congress listening to the speech. Interested people from across the globe listen, too. This year, to make the speech more accessible, news organizations and others turned to crowdsourced translation.

First, translation startup Babelverse announced that they would use their real-time translation service to livestream President Obama’s speech into as many different languages as possible. They hope to eventually offer livestreams like this in all 6,976 languages. While that goal proved to be a tad ambitious, according to their blog they were able to stream the speech into at least 7 different languages (Spanish, Hindi, French, Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Bahasa Indonesian and Portuguese), with an average of 2 interpreters per language.

Meanwhile, PBS, America’s public broadcasting service, brought back last year’s popular partnership with Universal Subtitles to offer crowdsourced subtitles for the video of Obama’s speech. Anybody capable of interpreting can volunteer with Universal Subtitles, and volunteer translators review the translations to catch errors.

A few hours after the speech was over, GigaOm reported that it had already been transcribed into 7 languages, and currently it is available in 29.

PBS NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan told that the project “gives viewers an opportunity to be part of spreading content to more people, and gives public media organizations a way to engage with their communities in a deep and ongoing way.”

Of course, even with a staff of volunteers, accuracy is always an issue. For now, at least, PBS is relying on its viewers’ better angels to keep its translations on target. As Sreenivasan put it:

“We have every intention to be as editorially accurate as possible. I don’t fundamentally believe that there are people out there who want to malign us by offering incorrect translations, but who knows? I think our intentions are noble, and I think the people who end up as volunteers for these kinds of things are generally more philanthropic and more volunteer-driven than the average viewer.”

The bottom line? Crowdsourced translation has a lot of potential for certain situations, but when getting it right the first time is what matters most, a reputable translation company is still the best way to go.

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New Languages Take Tweets in Another Direction

Twitter added four new language options to its translation repertoire last week: Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Urdu. Like the other languages that the popular online messaging service has been translated into, the task was crowdsourced to volunteers via Twitter’s translation center, allowing it to be completed in just a couple of months. Twitter described the process on its blog:

“We first added these four languages to the Twitter Translation Center on January 25. Thirteen thousand volunteers around the globe immediately got to work, translating and localizing into these languages in record time.”

Unlike English (and most of the other languages Twitter has been translated into thus far), these languages are all written and read from right-to-left. Therefore, bringing them to Twitter posed special challenges, requiring more involvement from Twitter engineers and making the short turnaround time even more impressive. As Twitter localization manager Laura Gomez explained to the Los Angeles Times:

“The anatomy of a Tweet by nature can be complex since it often contains a mix of text, links and hashtags. Adding RTL to the mix raises its own technical and design challenges. For this launch, we had to make a number of improvements to ensure Tweets look and behave correctly RTL.”

Twitter is now available in 28 languages, further cementing its role in connecting people both within and across cultures and countries. Several of the countries that use the languages included in this most recent batch of translations have banned Twitter for its role in coordinating protests against authoritarian governments. Some of the volunteers who translated the site had to navigate past government blocks of the service to do so.

However, as Annabelle Sreberny, professor of global media and communications at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told the BBC, Twitter is an important tool for protesters but it isn’t the only or even the most important one:

“It is just one among a range of tools and platforms that people use. I think the parallel would be the making available of tools to help people blog in Persian in 2002-3 by Hossein Derakshan. His manual on how to blog in the language helped trigger a huge boom in Persian voices on the internet.”

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Will Facebook Own Crowdsourced Translation?

On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun noted that Facebook has applied for a patent for its crowdsourced translation application. The app, which has been in use since early last year, has helped Facebook quickly and efficiently translate its pages into different languages. Here’s how it works: the application presents text that needs to be translated to users who are able to translate it. Different users’ translations of the same text are then put up against each other, and other members vote on which one of the translations is the most accurate.

TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid has some concerns about Facebook’s patent application. Many other sites also use crowdsourced translations, and those sites could be in jeopardy if Facebook’s patent is approved. As Kincaid explains,

“Now it’s up to the patent office to decide if the techniques employed by these other sites will represent prior art that would nullify Facebook’s patent. And you can be sure that’s what many people are hoping for — it would be highly frustrating for social networks down the line if they can’t leverage their own communities the way Facebook has.”

Of course, crowdsourced translations may be quick and efficient, but as some bilingual commenters on TechCrunch noted, the quality of the translations is often inconsistent. For example, commenter Viclava wrote that it took about a year before the Spanish version of Facebook was “readable” and relatively free of grammatical errors.

Hopefully, Facebook doesn’t end up owning the patent on crowdsourced translations for social networks. Crowdsourced translations can be a powerful tool to quickly and cheaply translate content into another language, and this is definitely valuable. However, in many cases it’s important that the content be translated flawlessly the first time. If your brand or image depends on a perfect translation, it’s best to go ahead and spring for a professional translation company.

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Twitter Translation Center Adds More Languages

Twitter has been using a crowdsourced translation model to publish the site in languages from around the world. As of this week, the total has risen to 30 with the addition of Ukrainian and Catalan. Ukrainian is spoken by 37.5 million Ukrainians and an additional 3.5 to 7.5 people outside of the country.

Catalan is spoken by about 6.7 million people in and around Catalonia, Spain. It is a Romance language related to Spanish and Italian.

In a blog post, Twitter noted that its users have been clamoring to translate the popular website into their own languages:

“The demand has been so high that we built a console – Twitter’s Translation Center, where users can help suggest translations for the site. With each official Twitter language launch, we saw more and more demand from users to help us translate Twitter into their language.”

The success of Twitter’s crowdsourced translation efforts holds a lesson for businesses of all types: people relate better to products that are presented to them in the language they prefer to speak. But crowdsourcing translations is certainly not for everyone. Translations can take time to perfect using this method, so you need a dedicated community that will be willing to help with quality control and be patient with translation errors.

Here’s how the process works with Twitter:

If you see a translation that doesn’t feel right, the best way to fix it is to log into the Translation Center and vote for the best choice. The phrase score will adjust over time, and the right translation will find its way into If you see inconsistencies in the content, you can get involved in the discussions with your community at the language forums. We’re continually improving on the system, so please send us your feedback and report any issues you come across.

This process works well for Twitter and Facebook because they have so many passionate users. For most businesses, a knowledgeable translation company is still going to be your best bet when it comes to moving in to new markets.