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.

Image Source: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by KJGarbutt

Spotlight on Mirandese

The New York Times recently ran an article by Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveller, describing a recent visit to the Mirandese-speaking region of Portugal. Today, Mirandese is Portugal’s second official language, but before it was officially recognized as such in 1999, it was sometimes treated as a rural (and therefore undesirable) dialect of Portuguese.

However, it’s actually been a distinct language since around the 12th century, when it branched off  from Astur-Leonese. Mirandese does have many similarities to Portuguese; the two languages share a common ancestry and they have been spoken side-by-side for centuries. Despite these commonalities, Mirandese has its own phonology, morphology and syntax and is actually much more closely related to Asturian. In the New York Times, Mr. Kugel lists one of many differences that make the language unique:

Most memorable was how Mirandese distinguishes grandmother and grandfather, both of which are spelled abó. When necessary, grandfather becomes l abó de las calças (grandparent of the pants) and grandmother is l’abó de la saia (grandparent of the skirt). Insensitivity to male cross-dressers and female jeans-wearers notwithstanding, can we all agree that that is adorable? Read more

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