The Meedan Blog Archive

Translating Hashtags: @Meedan’s Twitter Pilot

Last week, Meedan trialed a new project translating conversations, opinions and links being posted on Twitter. Here are 3 things we learned:

1) Hootsuite provides a powerful tool for team collaboration on social networks

For our Twitter pilot, Meedan chose to use Hootsuite as a dashboard for our production and translation team. Hootsuite is an in-browser, feature heavy client which draws together access to a number of social networks.

For Twitter, Hootsuite allows users to view various “streams” at any one time - including a user’s home feed, mentions, favourites, and keyword and hashtag searches. As Hootsuite also allows users to access multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously, users can create a dashboard with a rich selection of feeds - adding content from one account while browsing content from another.

This is important for Meedan’s pilot project: We need our translators to be able to see a feed of curated tweets marked “for translation” (from a central account, so all translators see the same feed) while being able to send tweets from individual accounts.

In the next phase of testing, we want to use an account which we can make open to volunteers - so volunteer translators from the Meedan and Twitter communities can access the curated feed and participate in translation.

2) Character limits add a new challenge to translation

At the very heart of Twitter lies the concept of 140 character messages. This poses a fresh challenge for translators, however. For someone translating Arabic into English, tweets which were concise in Arabic may be too long (more than 140 characters) in English, particularly with all-important hashtags and usernames added. In English, however, it’s relatively easy to shorten messages:


@mu2rrikh Many are writing about NY mosque and the hardliners' objections to building it but i want to draw your attention that it is an integrated Islamic center, not simply a mosque!#aren


In Arabic, however, the problem is much more acute: There are relatively few conventions to shorten words, and literal translations from English will frequently break the word count. Meedan translators will thus be pioneers of developing standards for shorthand English>Arabic translation. We’ll share our practices as we go!

3) Hashtags aren’t “open to all”

The biggest challenge we faced while piloting our project was access to hashtags. While any internet user - even those not signed up for Twitter - can view hashtags, it appears that only those who have been active on Twitter for some time can contribute content to them.

The reasons for this are no doubt noble - blocking new accounts, or those with fewer than a certain number of “followers” seems the most effective way to stop people spamming hashtags being watched by millions around the world.

For our project, however, it poses a challenge: If tweets from our translators (many of whom are comparatively new accounts on Twitter) are blocked from hashtags, it rules out a crucial element of the visibility of our work.

At the same time, it prevents Meedan from gathering all the material we are translating in one place - just as new users are blocked from popular hashtags such as #park51 (which we were translating) they are also blocked from #aren (our hashtag denoting content translated from ARabic > ENglish).

This should, however, be a short-term problem as Twitter improve their indexing of users and our translators gain more followers.

Join us this week on Thursday as we continue the next phase of our Translating Tweets pilot project! Follow us @translatetweets on Twitter.