The Guardian experiments with crowdsourcing translations

Users are invited to translate a new multimedia project on World War I

Speakers of English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, or Arabic can explore the Guardian’s new multimedia project on World War I in their native language. Those who are not might hope that someone will volunteer to translate the piece—anyone with proficiency in a language that the project, launched Wednesday, does not currently feature, can send the team an email and volunteer for the task.

“We’re a global paper and it’s a topic that is often told in a narrow scope, and that doesn’t suit our audience,” said Francesca Panetta, the Guardian’s multimedia projects editor. So the project, separated into seven chapters with audio, video, photos, and interactive elements, illustrates how the war expanded, how it was experienced by soldiers and civilians from many different regions, and how the world map had changed by its end.

To the historians who participated in the project, the global scope was an essential motivation too.

“My aim in participating was to make sure that the Ottomans were somehow included in this ‘World War,’ which is generally viewed by European public and even some historians as a European war as if the Ottoman Empire did not participate at all,” Yucel Yanikdag wrote in an email, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and an expert on Ottoman history.

The idea to expand beyond expressing alternate angles on the war in English to include a range of languages was born out of the process of working with the historians and the creative team, Panetta said. “We paid professionals to translate to as many languages as we could afford. I would have loved to do it in every language in the whole world but I can’t do that,” she said. Instead, the invitation now stands with the Guardian’s readers and other organizations that may want to get involved.

The project is just one more example of the outlet’s increasing focus on “global,” a word Panetta used repeatedly during an interview. As Ryan Chittum recently pointed out in CJR, the company’s trust is in a stable position, allowing the Guardian “to experiment and invest aggressively in digital expansion across the globe” which is continuing in the wake of its young US arm’s Pulitzer win this year.

To that end, this World War I project is far from the Guardian’s first experiments with crowdsourcing. Last year, for example, the organization launched Guardian Witness, dedicated to user-generated content. But “First world war 100 years on” is the outlet’s first experiment with crowdsourced translation.

And it looks like it may be catching on. On its first day live, interested individuals and organizations (some within the media industry, some not) in Indonesia, Brazil, Scandinavia, and Russia all reached out to the Guardian, expressing an interest in participating.

But the Guardian hasn’t planned what comes next after someone agrees to translate. It depends, Panetta said, on how many people offer up their services and what their skill levels are. Regardless, though, the Guardian will have professionals proofread and verify the material, she said, as is the case even when translations are carried out by professionals.

Crowdsourcing translation projects is not unheard of. In the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, a working group translated the movement’s declarations into 27 languages, said Susan Bernofsky, associate professor and director of literary translation at Columbia University. She cautions to not expect too much of non-professionals.

“Translations by amateurs almost never hold up compared with professional work in terms of communicating the subtleties of the message in a given piece,” she said.
The following months will prove what comes of the Guardian’s translation project. The content of the project itself is fixed, but Panetta is hoping to add more languages to the World War I project by the fall thanks to the efforts of volunteer translators.

Susan Bernofsky said that the project will be interesting to follow but also that she takes a cautious interest in it. Individual agendas may be reflected in the translations, and amateur translations do not always catch the subtlety of language, she said. And she wonders if the Guardian’s team of proofreaders will have the capacity to deal with translations into some of the smaller languages that may be submitted.

“I wanted to at least investigate the possibility” that the whole plan will work, Panetta said. “Maybe it will be very difficult but from just the one day and the response, it seems there may be a possibility.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS. Tags: , , , ,