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Why Facebook's latest feature release could be the most important yet

Facebook has this week taken an important step towards making the worlds most popular social networking platform a space for cross-cultural communication, by quietly introducing in-line translation.

How Facebook translation works

This smart new feature is powered by Microsoft Bing machine translation, and allows users to see translations of individual posts on public pages. If, for example, you’re an English speaker looking at Meedan’s Facebook page and you want to see what one of our Arabic posts says, you’ll find a handy “Translate” button sitting in between “Comment” and “Share”.

Hit “Translate” and the Arabic becomes English thanks to Bing’s magic. If you don’t like the machine translation, you can also improve it with your own version. To do this, right click on the machine translated text and a popup should appear as in the screenshot above. This translation will then go up for vote from other users. So as to protect against spam and misuse Facebook will only approve the edited translation when it passes a certain threshold of votes, though in keeping with other personalization features on Facebook this threshold is a black box. The concept though is for the translation with the most votes to replace the Bing translation as the default users see when they click “Translate”.

Why Facebook translation is important

The addition of translation functionality into Facebook has huge potential for users. Until now, you could only really communicate with people on Facebook with whom you shared a common language - that’s a major limiting factor in the number of people you can speak to. If I, for example, wanted to see how Hebrew-speaking Israelis are talking about Benjamin Netanyahu after his recent UN speech, for example, I would get stuck. Now I can read what people are saying (albeit through rough machine translation, though there’s a clear anti-Bibi gist):

I can even respond - maybe ask a question:

Facebook users using Hebrew as their default language will then be able to translate my question into Hebrew and post their reply, which I can then translate. Thus the conversation continues. But importantly it does depend on a cohort of motivated translators providing the glue in this model interaction.

The current translation functionality has some bugs which will no doubt be ironed out over time, and it’s currently only available on public pages, not yet on user profiles. But, it’s exciting that at long last Facebook is making efforts to break down the language silos which exist on the platform and building new bridges for cross-language discussion and collaboration.

How Facebook Translation could develop

With the advent of OpenGraph my friends will not be notified when I “Read” a Guardian article, or when I “Listen” to an article on Spotify. I hope one day that people will know when I “Translate” a comment on the Kolena Khaled Said Facebook page.

Right now I have no way of knowing what comments have been translated by someone, and which have been translated by a machine - if I can see that someone has already translated a post or a comment, I will be more likely to read it.

I’d like to know if a comment I post somewhere is translated by someone. Can I then share or “Like” the translation?

I’d like to be able to translate into languages other than the one in which I am using Facebook. Many users in the Middle East have their language setting in Facebook turned to English (or French) even if the majority of content they post is in Arabic - these users should be able to translate into Arabic as well as into English/French.

The translation data generated from Facebook user translations should be made open source - though the collaboration with Microsoft’s Bing make this an unlikely scenario

One day - and maybe this is a pipe dream - wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to translate the links people share on Facebook in a form of Facebook TransBrowser. With more than 800 million active users, the potential for translating and sharing media, social media and online resources is monumental.

Comments on this post

2011-12-05 07:25:03 -0800
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2011-12-17 06:28:31 -0800
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