The Meedan Blog Archive

Translating Interfaces vs. Translating People: Closing the Online Language Gap [Guest Post]

This is a guest post by An Xiao Mina, an American design thinker, new media artist, and digital community builder. Her work has been featured in venues internationally, from the Brooklyn Museum to Shanghai's Xindanwei, and in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and LA Weekly.  She co-founded Bird's Nest: Ai Weiwei in English, a site dedicated to translating the Twitter account of artist Ai Weiwei.  Learn more at or follow her on Twitter at @anxiaostudio.


This past month, I arrived in South Korea, sight unseen, and lived there for a month for work. I was stationed in the south, a small city of about one million people called Gwangju. For a month, I managed to get by without a problem. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner. I took cabs to different parts of town at any time of day and night. I withdrew cash from the ATM and checked into hotels. I even took an unplanned trip to nearby Daegu by bus, then another bus into the Gayasan mountain range, entirely by myself.

This is remarkable for being unremarkable. Other than the basic “hello” and “thank you”, I don't speak a lick of Korean. The written language is completely unintelligible to me, a mere series of circles and angles only marginally familiar because I grew up near LA's Koreatown.

As with most countries I've visited, translation in city infrastructure is easy to find, and I can rely on my privilege as a native English speaker. Street signs are spelled out in Roman script. My train ticket to Gwangju appeared in English, and the attendants understand basic phrases like “bathroom” and “what time is it?” My life got even easier when I returned to Seoul, when I discovered my proficiency in Mandarin came in handy too: almost everything, from subway maps to ATMs, is spelled out in Korean, Roman and Chinese scripts.

But what's missing from this picture? I spent a few days in Seoul with a friend of mine, Christina, who's lived in both Korea and the United States. She sports equal fluency in both countries' languages, and spending time with her opened doors I hadn't thought were present. She pointed out the previously-anonymous famous actors advertising soap and cars on billboards. She helped me chit chat with strangers when I was curious about their fancy mobile phones. She negotiated better deals in the markets and helped me understand cheesy song lyrics at restaurants. By the time I left Korea, I had a much fuller, rounder picture of the country in those few days than I had had in all the previous weeks.

This is the state in which we find our social media today. We can skim the surface smoothly, we can navigate the interfaces in our language of choice, but we still can't talk to each other. Facebook is famous for having crowdsourced its translation interface, now offering over a hundred languages, including fun ones like Latin and “Pirate”. I use Twitter en Español to keep my language skills up, and I could use it in a dozen other languages if I chose. Tencent, one of the world's largest social networks with a reported 800 million users on its QQ instant messaging service and 200 million on its microblog service, offers interfaces in English and Chinese.

But as soon as we log on, we find that the idea of connecting world is often an illusion: we have no reliable way of understanding the languages that other people are speaking if we don't speak them ourselves. Machine translation certainly helps, but the functionality rarely accommodates the complicated context and nuance of communication beyond basic chit chat. And regardless, it's rarely implement: even between similar languages, like English and Spanish, I've seen topics trend in parallel on the same service.

Thankfully, many sites, from Meedan to Global Voices to Chinasmack, open portals between language speakers. They translate important blog posts. They highlight tweets and events that I might have missed. They provide context and commentary. In short, they serve as bridges, and they rely on bridge figures like my friend Christina, who can help the two worlds understand each other.

As we've seen in the past year, with so many world events broadcast and organized around social media, skimming the surface is no longer enough. But how often do we really speak with those outside our social circles and across languages? For the most part, we're living like I had been in Korea: politely nodding and smiling but not actually speaking to each other and exchanging ideas.

If we want truly global social platforms, we'll need more tools and more bridges to help us. And by embedding crowdsourced translation features into its own service, Facebook is leading the way in making these bridges a default part of a social media service's functionality. Hopefully more will start doing the same.

Comments on this post

2011-11-02 10:29:33 -0700
Thanks for this insightful piece An. We are surely on the cusp of a new age of cross-lingual interaction, but the really tough part is encouraging and enabling translation as a habitual publishing gesture online. Could translating a sentence one day be as usual as sharing a link or writing a comment?
2011-11-04 05:29:58 -0700
Love that - yes, as designers we should think about how we can design interfaces that make it as easy to translate a tweet or even a blog post as it is to share a link or write a comment.
2013-07-04 21:18:28 -0700
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2013-07-04 21:21:08 -0700
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