The Meedan Blog Archive

House of Translation Lecture Cairo March 12, 2013: Social Media Translation


I was honored to be a scholar-in-residence at the AUC under the National Center for Translation House of Translation speaker series earlier this month. For context on this series and the House of Translation, see my post on the HoT / AUC / National Center for Translation speaker series.

Below is the text from this lecture and the deck I presented to accompany the talk. Of course the best part of the talk was the question and answer period, but, alas, I do not have that captured so this will have to suffice. Hope you find some of the ideas of interest.  I have [bracketed] the slide titles in the remarks below for those who want the full text plus slide experience.


Cairo talk-1-eb-v06-mar11 from Ed Bice

Real-Time Media, Network Culture, and the Translator

I am honored to be with you tonight to deliver the third in a series of lectures supported by the House of Translation, the AUC, and the Ministry of Culture. I want to extend my deep thanks to the Ministry of Culture and the AUC for taking on the emerging domain of social media translation as a point of serious study. And I reserve special gratitude to Dr. Samia without whose vision and efforts this I would not be with you this evening.

In the spirit of the subject I have remixed the title of my talk. The general trajectory of the talk will be from theory to practice, with the subthemes of this navigation being ‘word and link,’ ‘text and context,’ ‘social and societal,’ and ‘hacks and fails.’

[language] From the beginning of time we have been adding tools to the operating system called human language. Each of these tools - the spoken word, the alphabet and written word, the printing press, the phonograph - has changed the ways we use language, which is to say, the way we make and exchange meaning.

The digital word and its rendering, delivery, and application engine - the internet- is the most recent additions to this operating system.  From its humble start as a handful of connected nodes in this 1979 diagram, open source technologies and the brilliant architecture of the world wide web have created a 2.1 billion node network which is the largest and most globally diverse created human-created public resource.

The communications and publishing happening in this setting are broadly accorded the honorific of ‘new media’ — a branding which seems appropriate to the ephemera embodied in memes like lolcats [lolcats], grumpy pandas [panda], and ‘the guy behind sulieman’ [sulieman]. But, as Ethan Zuckerman details in his ‘Cute Cat Theory of the Internet’ the pervasive public use of these ‘tubes’ to transmit LOLcats and Panda videos drives creation of the infrastructure (the tools and services), the networks (social communities), and the social behaviors (the read/write generation) needed to support serious social activists’ use of these tools. And so, not surprisingly, we see use and remix these symbols themselves as a subversive path to substantive social critiques. [sadder panda], [sulieman plus panda].

These are entertaining examples and certainly, being asked to give a lecture on a topic like new media translation, the door was open for me to regale you all with retelling of the interesting, curious and entertaining challenges which these emergent language patterns and cultural memes bring to the practice of translation. That would have been the easy talk - and perhaps the more entertaining talk.

But in such proximity to Tahrir [tahrir], we are called to think more deeply – so here I forewarn an ambitious and high-risk transition from LOLcats to philosophy of language. Not because I want to bore you all, but because I want to try to dig a bit deeper into how the word and the text are evolving in the new media setting in order to draw some conclusions about the changing role of the translator in this setting.

I am taking the ambition of this talk as my small contribution to the revolution. And in saying this I do not assert that tonight’s observations will be profound, but only that I will take the more difficult road tonight, and that even if we do not overturn a government or create a new branch of studies at AUC (both of these projects seem to be in motion) our creative approach to the subject might spark some new ideas related to this latest update of our linguistic operating system.

So, tonight I will sit in the meedan with a large banner proclaiming that social media in itself is not trivial, ephemeral, or informal, but rather that it is fundamentally shifting and evolving the way we use language, create knowledge, and share meaning. The implications of these shifts, I would argue, should instill in all members of this read/write generation the certainty that the meaning of our world, held in the ideas and opinions of several billion people and expressed through several thousand languages is more malleable, transparent, and attainable than at any other time in our history. And in this recognition there is perhaps an inevitable conclusion that the arc of open systems swings toward the social justice which rests at the base of all human concerns - namely the right to determine the meaning of our world. This is liberation media- media Tahrir.

First, though, we have to expend the appropriate amount of energy dismantling the hype of the brands. Which is to say we need to expend a great deal of energy, because the hype is overwhelming. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram walk into a conversation as a movie star walks into a room. That these brands claim even the verbs we attached to our communications- Tweet, Google, Pin - and come to stand for the networked miracle that bridges the personal with the global, gives the brands themselves a certain glow. This glow, however, should not be mistaken for the real substance; new media is people in communication. The power of the platform, like the power of a government, is given of and can be taken by, its users/citizens.

Many philosophers and critics have mapped the new media terrain with more rigor, theory, and insight than I will muster tonight. Nonetheless, I will take this opportunity, to frame what I feel are the critically different attributes of new media publishing. We will use this analysis of the changing roles of the author(s) and audience(s) and the changing meaning of word/token and the text to ground and validate some insights into the practice of translation and the role of the translator in this new setting.

Beginning with theory and we will finish with practice - looking at the work my organization, Meedan, did in the earliest days of the Egyptian revolution.

Briefly, I want to address the question of how we define and limit the terms ‘new media’ and ‘social media.’  According to Wikipedia, “Most technologies described as "new media" are digital, often having characteristics of being manipulated, networkable…and interactive.[1] Some examples may be the Internet, websites, computer multimedia, video games, CD-ROMS, and DVDs.”#  - We notice in this definition the terms ‘networkable and interactive.’ New media is, by its very nature inclined to social attributes. So, I think in practice the terms ‘new media’ and ‘social media’ are largely interchangeable. [82%] In support of this, Jose van Dijck (deck) notes that “In December 2011, 1.2 billion users worldwide—82 percent of the world’s Internet population over age 15—logged on to a social media site, up from [only] 6 percent in 2007.[social]1 Within less than a decade, a new infrastructure for online sociality and creativity has emerged, penetrating every fiber of culture today.” Social media, roughly defined as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan and Haenlein 2010: 60) has become the de facto form of all digital media.  The numbers are pretty stunning - [tweets per minute] Users generate 72 hours of Youtube videos each minute, watch 4 billion hours of Youtube video each month, and send 500 million Tweets every day. In 2012 there were almost 700,000 status updates posted to Facebook every minute. The average person has about 70% more friends on Facebook that in real life. [social 20%] And 20% of our online time in 2012 was spent on a social network.

With our social table set, let’s try some theory.


First, the image. This is Paul Ricoeur, the great French Philosopher, Humanist, and Translator. I reference this image to frame our inquiry. Talking with authority about the behaviors and meaning of a system as complex as language is treacherous. So, I will suggest that we go into the part of this talk with, at least metaphorically, our glasses flipped backward in a show of humility and playfulness. Humility, as you will see, is going to be a recurring theme.

It is precisely because translation must begin with the work of assessing the boundaries of a word or text’s meaning that we must make an effort to understand what has changed in the way that we make and represent meaning in this new landscape as a first step toward suggesting new practices for translation in this new setting.

It is instructive to consider the translator’s challenge in a traditional setting. To properly frame the challenge, we need only consider that there are somewhere on the order of 6900 separate systems – languages - humans have devised to describe the word and about 7.1 billion potential readers. So, humility must be the starting point for any translator. Ricoeur talks of humility combined with hospitality as being the key ingredients in successful translation. Hospitality in the sense that we are, in translating, opening our home (the translators native language) to a stranger - in this case taking an idea or expression from the language in which it is first understood, framed, generated, and validated into an environment where it will be understood not in the fullness of its source referents - for they do not travel along - but through the lens of other words, different grammars and all of the social and cultural referents those signifiers conjure in the target language.

Ricoeur explains ‘linguistic hospitality’ as the ‘pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language...balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.’ In fact, Ricoeur suggested in the early days of the forming of the European Union that translation serve as the metaphor for bridging the diverse set of identities being asked to share in the broader union. He states, “The problem is familiar enough. Taken as a whole it is a matter of combining ‘identity’ and ‘alterity’ at numerous levels that will need to be distinguished. What we most desperately lack are models of integration between these two poles” (1996:3-4).

For Ricoeur, translation is the essential act of negotiating identity and alterity. He states, “Above all at a truly spiritual level, it leads us to extend the spirit of translation to the relationship between the cultures themselves […] In this sense we can speak of a translation ethos whose goal would be to repeat at the cultural and spiritual level the gesture of linguistic hospitality”

The humility of the translator is obvious - he must ask of both the author and the reader an explicitly (assuming monolingual author and reader) blind trust in his rendering. The humility of the author is more interesting. I assert, acknowledging the shadings and leanings of my open and free culture/knowledge affiliations, that authorship, as an outbound act of making meaning, must, in our multi-lingual, digital, networked world, begin with the recognition that words will find their ways into all corners of our ideologically, culturally, and linguistically diverse world. It is tremendously humbling for an author to understand that her intended context/audience is only that and that the words she shares must be allowed to wander, unaccompanied, across the world and across languages – even across her own language as it moves forward without her.

Meaning making has always been a social activity

When we consider the depth of a word or a text, we must assert that every word occupies a place in a language which is only partially described by its formal grammar and definition and only partly influenced by its author’s intentions. Here we borrow from Wittgenstein to assert that the meaning of a word or a text is found in its ‘use’ and that the use of a word is bounded by the ineffable (we almost want to say unspoken at the same time that it is precisely derivative of all of the spoken/written/broadcast instances of a word) understanding that a society (defined as the ‘listening’ community) has of that word. To understand how different this is from the simple grammar and definition of a word, we need only to consider the poesis of language. Both in written and spoken form a word in a language carries a sort of gravitational pull toward other words in the language who share aural, etymological, even visual typographic lineage or similarity.

Our assembly of meaning across languages, in translation, multiplies this to a dazzlingly complex weave of the way source and target words and phrases are ‘brought up’ through a language - the linguistic, cultural, and intellectual context of the author, translator, and reader. Translation is, like nature itself, an impossibly beautiful set of compromises and complexities.

Consider the extent to which the referents change over time, between different communities within a society, or for an individual. As the referent of the term the President of Egypt [state photo of mubarak] - has changed, so too has the meaning and use of that title changed dramatically. And this of course includes the set of social rules governing how and where we can use a word, image, or referent – and these rules can change dramatically, and suddenly. [mubarak graffiti] In this sense history is continually lost - the words we use to describe the past can never be restored to their former meaning; they cannot removed from the context they inherit in the present. We cannot choose to forget what something means to us, and in this regard we are wired to evolve our understanding with the meaning of a language.

If we do not go forward with the way we understand the use of a word then we - and the words we speak - go dissonant with the society. We cease to mean what we intend to mean. And, as we will discuss later in the talk, the informal and real-time setting of social media has an amplifying effect on this continual evolution of words in our language.

[Hospitality] It is precisely because language is so infinitely rich and complex that all translation work must begin with hospitality and be conducted with humility. And while hospitality is generally an asymmetric relationship — one is being welcomed and one is doing the welcoming, one is the traveler and one is the host — in the special case of translation, the hospitality is strangely symmetrical; as if gathering in a room designed by MC Escher, the author, translator, and reader must all pour the cup of tea, exchange smiles and recognize that they are involved in a symmetric exchange of generousity; what Ricoeur calls ‘adequacy without equivalence.’

And yet, for all the theoretical difficulties, which would have us quit the project of translation – or at least quit the hope of adequacy – there is what Wittgenstein would call the proof of use. So, we must quit the theoretical considerations and find our proof in the emotion of language that comes through translation intact. [Gokh] When the English speaker reads the simple English translation of Hisham El Gohk’s poem, with the context the historical moment it was delivered there is an undeniable sway of emotion.

‘An Honest View of Liberation Square

Put away all of your old poems,

tear apart all of your old notebooks,

and write for Egypt today the poetry that she deserves.

Put away all of your old notebooks,

and write for Egypt today the poetry that she deserves.

No longer will silence impose its fear,

so write that Egypt and her people are the peace of the Nile.


Do not let them tell you that I

am a rebel, that I have betrayed the trust of my country or forgotten it.

Do not let them tell you that I

have become trivial or that I am manipulated.


For I am the child of your womb,

and the children of your womb are those who wanted to

and who deposed and who acknowledged and who forbid.

The defeated remained silent, fearfully, in cowardice,

and those who love you have said what they had to say.

translation by Michael Nevomdomski, Meedan translator

The point of this digression is two-fold: first, before we wade into the more complex, fraught, and difficult waters of real-time social media translation, to clear the theoretical chalk board and properly disclaim the possibility of any perfectly equivalent translation while emphatically showing that this does not stop us from effectively translating spirit and emotion, and second, to raise the point that meaning making has always been and will always remain a fundamentally social activity.

Now we dive into the machinery of language in the new media setting. [emoticons] What is it about this world of posts, tweets, #hashtags, OMGs, and emoticons that we should take seriously? And for translators, who have generally dedicated their life to deep study and appreciation of language, why should an internet full of acronyms, anti-grammar, and cute cat videos not inspire fear, dread, and horror? [words?] Worse, how should those of us who care about the community and craft of translators respond to an internet of webpages and documents rendered through algorithmic, statistical translations? I suggest that a prudent first step down this path is to evaluate the characteristics of words, texts, and authors in this setting, and only then to propose how translation might evolve to address these new challenges.

We will start with the word - whose changes are interesting and fundamental - and then move to the text - whose changes are interesting, fundamental, and profoundly impactful when considering the new practice of translation.

The digital word

[printed circuit board] When we browse the writings of a 15th century astronomer or listen to urban rap poetry or walk the back alleys of any city in the world, we recognize that language evolves in a dramatic fashion. It evolves in the way that fashion and values and ideologies evolve, which is to say that it evolves in the mix of caprice and need.  When a new word is coined or a new use for an old word is innovated it is put in front of the court of public opinion and if it solves a problem or serves a fashion or has advocates with significant public reach then it might gain a foothold in the language. In all of these cases, though, the meaning of the word is carried through use, mediated socially, either understood or not understood in the context of the communities in which it is ‘deployed’.

The printed circuit board changed this fundamental relationship between the word and its meaning.

[Engelbart] With a brief nod to the history behind the technology, this is Doug Engelbart demoing his first envisioning of this new component of language, a technology he called hypertext.# More than 40 years ago Doug and his team gave a demonstration which has come to be known as the mother of all demos. It was said that 90% of the audience thought the demo had been ‘faked’ and the other 10% went on to create the modern digital world. Having been fortunate to know Doug - his was an early advisor to Meedan -  he once described to me his experience as a young engineer walking down a hall when the thought occurred to him that the most meaningful contribution to humanity he could make would be to work on the systems and tools that support collaborative problem solving. He pivoted his life work on that observation and shortly thereafter was asked to lead a research team at the Stanford Research Institute working on these problems.

[hypertext] Before the advent of the digital embodiment of the word, the relationship between the signifier and the signified was always contingent. Contingent on the rule of a language and the patterns of the society holding the language.

Hypertext creates what we might refer to as an idealized referent, one with no contingencies, no semantic friction. The word in this setting has taken on a new form - one closer to the gates and levers of the physical and natural world than the semantics of language. Hypertext is a fundamental change in the the ‘technology’ of representation - the word in the hypertextual setting moves from simply being the signifier to being programmatic, an operator.  Through hypertext a word can put in motion a series of actions that disables your computer or brings down a power grid. More commonly - billions of time each day, in fact -  it may set in motion a query against several billion documents running through an algorithm. What is delivered through these services is not just the hyperlinked destination, but the algorithmically mediated meaning of a word.

The hypertext is not simply an interface for annotation - nor is it simply a new way of referring. Hypertext changes the way we use words. The word that first found meaning through a network of speakers, durability and portability in writing, its range in the printing press, finds in hypertext its operational capacity.   Hypertext should, I feel, be thought of as the primary technical innovation to language - and while we come to think now of it as linking one page on the web to another page on the web, it is more fundamentally the ability for an author (the link creator or application author) to decide what explicit referent or programmatic action will be invoked by the word.

This presented view might also provide for me the ‘meaning’ of a word that a paid advertiser who has ‘purchased a word’ through Google adwords has determined. The value (and meaning) of individual words in the language varies on a daily basis in tidal rhythm with the happenings in the world. [tide blackout ad, etc].  Evidence the #blackout trend during the worlds most watched media event. After an unexpected loss of power during this year’s game a hashtag began to propogate #blackout. Within four minutes two brilliant teams at two corporate ad agencies recognized the value of this global attention and produced copy and graphics for ads like this Tide laundry ad. A Twitter channel and a designer and a copy writer were the total cost for this ad which was arguably more discussed than any of the ads that paid $3.8 million dollars per 30 seconds to be broadcast on the ‘old media’ during the game.

In a sense those companies who build and maintain the platforms, applications and services we use on a daily basis are being given the authority to tell us what the world means. I say this not with a dystopian gloom but asking that we reflect for a moment on how different the word in a digital setting really is. And as technologies progress it impacts and reflects our use of language in different ways - it has only been a few years since Google introduced autocomplete into the search bar. Now it is not just the returned pages that drive from an algorithmic understanding of language and use, it is the next word in the query we are rendering. [Google autocomplete image]. Note this much circulated image showing the various autocompletes to two seemingly similar queries.

In a sense this is a new user interface for the word. One wherein the relation between the symbol and its referent is explicit, binary, and powerful. [algorithms]

The new text

[creative commons] While hypertext presents a new technology for the word, the protocols of the internet present a new form for the text. A text which explicitly reflects the sociality of meaning making we discussed earlier. This social form of the digital ‘text’ is the result of technical and legal innovations. Creative Commons is the global organization that has created the content and data licenses that extend the Open Source Software ethos to the text and allow for the possibility of publicly constructed knowledge unencumbered by restrictive copyrights. In a sense Creative Commons provides the legal framework for the affordances of internet technologies; to say, they allow the blurring of a distinction between author and reader, freeing the legal space for remixing, derivatives and intertextuality. In parallel with this are the de facto social behaviors of a copy/paste generation whose actions show very little regard for copyright provisions whether they relate to music which is readily ‘torrented’ or government documents which are readily shared with the global media.

We can think of two different incarnations of this new sociality of the text.

[Wikipedia gobal warming] The first is best represented by the wiki – a tool for allowing many people to collaborate on a single document. The primacy of a single author is subverted in these systems. What is interesting is that the very sociality we asserted is the essential mechanism for holding and evolving meaning is, with the wiki, brought very explicitly into the form of the text. See for instance this representation of the edits made to the Wikipedia page for global warming; tens of thousand of individual contributions (and disagreements) adding up a single narrative. Or, see this experiment from 2011 using Pirate Pad to draft a new Tunisian Constitution [pirate pad].

The notion of collective authorship expressed into a text is certainly not new, but, the scale of our 2.1 billion user internet combined with frameworks like creative commons and platforms like wikimedia profoundly change the politics of meaning-making in a way is generally bad news for publishing houses and dictators alike.  In these social texts there is still a vision for the text as having a consistent narrative, tone, and voice – in short, it is recognizable as a text.

[conversational text] The second form of the social text I will propose is far more interesting, less formal and perhaps more contentious. For the sake of clarity let’s choose to call this - somewhat arbitrarily - the conversational text. If we consider the wiki as sociality expressed in the methods of production of the text, the conversational text is sociality expressed in the form of the text itself. Here we assert that the text is any collected or curated set of content objects with a definable relationship to an addressable object, whether that be an image, a hashtag, a webpage, a sentence on a webpage, or a meme. Regardless the question of whether this is a valid extension of the notion of the text, in positing this we provide a route to consider how the role of the translator in the new text setting evolves in important and empowering ways.

In building our case for this new type of text we start with the proposition that the conversational text is the expression of the way that knowledge is ‘organized’ on the distributed internet. In this setting the boundary of the text is fluid and arbitrary. In one example it can be thought of as being the media object expressed as a uniform resource locator, or URL, bounded by the set of published referents to that URL. These referents include - most obviously - the comments shared inside a post, but they extend to other posts on the web that link to our text. [data] If we use the simple litmus of understanding what it is that contributes to the meaning of our ‘text’ - let’s say a #hashtag driven sort - it is clear that we gain much from data related to the social interactions, user metrics, influence metrics, meta-data, and analytics that bound our #hashtext.

To put this in more concrete terms, when we consider the meaning of a Tweet, is there any question that that meaning extends beyond the originating Tweet to include the @replies, the Retweets, the favorites, the follower count of those involved, the number of @replies, and Retweets, the Klout, PeerIndex and Twitter Grader ratings of the participants, the relevant commentary via trackbacks to the Tweet from blogs and mainstream media posts, and the annotations added to the link by services such the bookmarking tools like or verification and liveblogging tools like Meedan’s Checkdesk or Storify or Storyful? I think that the web of links and conversations and analytics demands that we think about the ‘text’ in a new way - a way that will not in the near term threaten the primacy and validity of the traditional single author, continuous narrative, well-contained text, but which may, in time, allow us to consider a form of the text as the captured and digitized trace of the conversations, observations, and annotations of a broad set of readers. Again, we come back to the point that great texts have always lived an extended life in a society through the conversations, editorials, rebuttals, trials, performances, and cultural connections they create. What we posit is that the digitization of our interactions with these new texts changes the actionable boundary of the text.

The conversational text is just the natural extension of the fundamental architecture of the internet, standards like RSS, and application programming interface (API) protocols, all work to support an ecosystem where conversations and collaborations are not - necessarily - bound to a single platform or a single network. The structure creates the potential for motivated users to discover and reinforce links, annotate connections, posit relationships, and in general to do story or text building from across the internet.  (At this point we should take a moment to parenthetically note that all of the commercial publishing platforms dance between their users’ demands for content, data and identity portability and their corporate interest in holding with some friction the content and data that is their lifeblood. There is obvious irony in the fact that the very tools used to openly (at times heroically) express an individual’s dissatisfaction with her government, hold license to this content which may inhibit the authors’ ability to freely transport and move this content.) The conversational text does not only impact the form of the text it influences the formation of language.

It has been observed that language evolves more rapidly in a spoken culture than in a written culture. Most obviously, the written word creates a stable referent that can be shared with new speakers of of language, new members of a society. So, why do we see in the digital form of language a rate of evolution that mimics those found in spoken cultures? There are three active forces at work in the social media setting that work to increase the rate of linguistic evolution, or what some of the academics in the audience might call linguistic devolution

We might start with the sheer frequency of exchange. There are 30 trillion pages on the web, 2.1 billion internet connected users. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, famously quipped in 2010 that more data is created every 48 hours - 5 exebytes if you are counting -  than was in the period from the start of history to 2003. We are creating and exchanging words at an unprecedented velocity. This velocity allows new words, grammars, and memes to quickly surface, evolve, and move between language communities.

Second, is the effect arbitrary constraints imposed at the application level (140 characters, to choose an explicit example) have on word and grammar choices.  Given a choice between more meaning and better grammar the crowd votes resoundingly for the former. And when we consider that grammar is created in service of meaning we should not be surprised with the results of the ballot.

Third is the real-time nature of this publishing. When relevance is decaying over time (decay here used in the sense that within an ephemeral network the attention of the co-creating audience moves on rapidly to their next area of concern) - participants are not motivated to frame ideas in formal linguistic structures.

These three factors work to contribute to a new social contract between human language and its practitioners which, by the proof of use, has radically changed the acceptable range of improvisation vis a vis the written word and its grammatical formalities.

The #hashtag is an amazing example of of a user-driven improvisation. On August 23rd, 2007 Chris Messina, a prominent open source developer and open web advocate, now with Google, Tweeted an idea for using the #pound symbol to act as a different type of word on Twitter. Following the convention used on IRC chat channels, he suggested that ephemeral groupings could form around words or phrases that were distinguished by including the #pound symbol. At the time Chris suggested:

“I do think that there is certainly some merit to improving contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter. This is a rather messy proposal to that effect.”#

Messina’s rather messy proposal, one which Twitter founder Ev Williams called ‘too nerdy’ to work, has become, as a simple ad hoc practice (which was subsequently made explicit in the Twitter application), arguably one of the most dominant ‘patterns’ in social media content production. In our idea of the conversational text we can imagine each #hashtag on Twitter as serving as an aggregation point for a text written and read around the world.  And, with this the internet of Doug Engelbarts dreaming has come from the hypertext as the operator which allows a word to take us to a destination (URL) to the #hastag which allows a global population to join the real-time and living text that describes a revolution.  [#Jan25]

In theory.

Which brings us to the role of the translator in this new setting.

Translation in the social media era

If we accept the idea that social media is conversational, interactive, real-time, informal, full of emergent linguistic and cultural patterns, and relatively unbounded, then we can begin to reverse engineer the changing role of the translator and with this to define new tools and practices.

I think it is reasonable to frame the changes in terms of:

  1. The translator as a curator

  2. The translator as an active and addressable participant

  3. Translation as itself as a necessarily social practice.

In the traditional setting the translator comes to a project with an understanding of the scope of the text, the requirements of the client and a definition of the audience or end user. In the social text setting the translator must become the curator, must play an active role in the work of curating what of the context - be it in the form of related content or relevant meta-data - will be included in their work. When working in the real-time setting of a social media stream the translator is, like the user who chooses what to retweet, when to favorite or repost, making the curatorial choice to address a certain user or a certain hashtag or a certain @reply to a politicians statement.  In this regard we can think of the translators role vis a vis the author blurring in the same manner that the creator/consumer roles or citizen/journalist role blurs.

And, under the umbrella of the translator as creator, we must also recognize what the above mentioned emergent and fluid linguistic setting means for the very possibility of translation. When words or new grammars are entering into a language or into a particular discourse in innovative or memetic ways, it is not possible to restrict the translator’s role to simply rendering equivalent words. The author must make very active (unprecedented) choices in determining in what word to render a new concept. If the translator is dealing with not just a new meaning but a new word in the source language then they may also have the additional burden of creating a new word in the target language. If the meaning of a cultural meme as expressed in an image, Tweet or an improvised word is going to be carried to new shores the translator is forced into the creative position of defining and describing the cultural and social context of the referent.

And, as the means of publishing is inherently a creative role, the translator must become an actor in the text, placing her work into the stream/network and serving as a voice to respond to interactions that occur on the translation. In this system content is communication and the translator is not just the interpreter, they are the social distributer of their content. Moreover, they are, in entering into the publishing workflow - in ways that we will demonstrate in the slides below - ‘addressable.’ This is the key aspect of the conversational translator, they are able to receive a message back - in the form of an @reply or a private network message - from their audience. The translator is in this regard explicitly connected to the translation and is accessible in a way that is quite profoundly evolved from the historical model of the translator as the nameless, faceless, monotone medium of exchange located to the back of the room, behind the soundproof wall, behind the shaded windows, frictionless and invisible.

And in this forward facing view we have the potential for translation as a practice to mimic the sociality of language, to become a conversation between ad hoc communities of individuals who share a common interest. Certainly, this can and does happen in the chatrooms of Pro-Z and in the countless translation fora on the web, but in the real-time and social media setting there is the chance to express this feedback into the ‘text’ itself.  We will be exploring some experiments in these new forms in our workshops over the next few days.

This is probably a good time to explain that while this view of the social media translator is interesting and compelling, there is not yet a robust platform for translating social media on the web. And I assert this having been personally involved in many of the notable ‘hacks’ related to working through this challenge. I promised at the outset of this talk that I would in repayment for the indulgence of exploring some of the theoretical boundaries of translation in the social media setting.

Notable hacks [#sidibouzid] Following the patter of someone on the web asking for something, Tom El Rumi from Meedan received a request from some of the people working around the #sidibouzid hashtag to start a translation effort. The story of Bouazizi and the protests and clashes which followed his self-immolation were largely overlooked by international media, right up until just before Ben Ali fell.


Much of the news was coming through Twitter and was in Arabic and French.

[] Translation is a form of annotation. We had been experimenting internally with and had recognized that the ‘annotation’ or comment field could be used to submit, and repost translations.

Curated.By was an application that allowed users to curate tweets and add them to “bundles” – Launching just before Storify, was the first notable case of service that allowed tweets to be curated and embedded. This curating could be done as an individual or collaboratively as part of a team. The individual who set up the ‘channel’ was able to invite collaborators to join as curators and commenters – or, in our hack, as curators and translators.

[ instructions]

Within each bundle, a registered Curated.By user could post a ‘comment’ and this ‘comment’  could be simultaneously posted to Twitter as a Reply to the original tweet. We used this feature to post translations.

[ diagram]

This Curated.By ‘comment’ (our translation) thus appears in Twitter as an @reply from the translator’s @twitterhandle (they were authenticated into through their Twitter account) to the user. Adding hashtags means translated content is appears to anyone following a # (#Jan25, #SidiBouzid)

[ translation tags] Translation Tags We wanted to find a clear and simple way to make sure people knew a translated tweet was a translation of another user’s tweet, so we used: #AREN (later #Ar2En) & #ENAR (later #En2Ar). The reason we stopped using #AREN had much to do with the behavior of the #hashtag search at the time which was sweeping in Tweets with the word ‘aren’t’ which turns out to be a pretty common word on Twitter. This let people know we were translating AND allowed us to quickly create a feed of all the translated content.

[ example tweets]

Translating #Jan25 After piloting with #SidiBouzid, we used this same workflow as the Egyptian revolution began, working with a distributed team of contributors translating #Jan25

When internet was cut in Egypt, users elsewhere in the world were curating & translating the small number of tweets able to get through, posting them back into the #Jan25 stream.

[thumbs up] What worked

·      Easy to build visibility of translation project and simple to get involved - people understood the idea of #hashtag activism and joined in, gave positive feedback ·      High-impact: Translated Tweets went back into the feeds people around the world were watching (#Jan25) ·      Clear attribution: clear link between original and translated tweet, original user notified via @mention ·      35k visitors  views of our bundle on Curated.By Many more saw translated content via Twitter ·      1700 tweets curated/translated ·      Community of 30-50 translators contributing

[thumbs down] Challenges

·      Difficult to translate in fewer than 140 characters, especially using the #hashtag (important) ·      We curated and translated in #Jan25 so much content we broke Curated.By ·      Several users reported that Curated.By was blocked in Tunisia during #SidiBouzid (this only stopped them joining translation - Twitter was still functional) ·      Curated.By is no more ·      Ultimately, as Curated.By did not manage to turn a profit and went offline - taking all our translation with it. ·      Lesson: look after your own translation data


[habib tweets/partners] When the Mubarak regime blocked access to Facebook and Twitter following the protests of January 25, and subsequently cut all internet access on the evening of January 27, Google decided to collaborate with Twitter using SayNow - a newly acquired app for voice to web - to set up a service that would allow Egyptians (later Libyans and Syrians) to dial a free international number and leave a voice message. [saynow page] This message would then be posted online (as audio) and a link to the recording would be tweeted by @Speak2Tweet. [speak2tweet twitter page] Callers could also listen to messages posted by other users by dialing the same international numbers. The service thus allowed Egyptians to make their voices heard to the world - be they journalistic, passing messages to loved ones, or railing against crimes witnessed on the streets - and, potentially, for Egyptians to share updates with one another - though the extent to which this happened is unclear.

Almost as soon as the service had been set up - publicized by Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera Mubasher - and people were dialing in and leaving messages, almost exclusively in Arabic. I received a Tweet from my good friend Habib Haddad from Yamli (and Wamda) and got on a skype chat with @aaron Huslage from Meedan and Aaron and I sketched out the rough use cases for a site to display the translations, and Aaron started hacking on a Wordpress site [word press site] to show the Speak2Tweet voices into English, French, and Spanish. In parallel, the guys from Small World News set up the domain Egypt.Alive.In and launched a Google spreadsheet to house the audio files, transcriptions and translations [google spreadsheet]. Two amazing community managers @arabzy Nour El Ali and @badrgirl (who were really the keys to the effort) manned the skype channel and the spreadsheets 24 hours a day for the next two weeks. I started a Pirate Pad [pirate pad] to allow for crowdsourcing the real-time video transcription work – using Universal Subtitles to hold the translations – for the video footage that also rolled in to the channel. All told, the effort was a model for online ad hoc community collaboration, running on a mix of a ton of human energy and a mix of free applications [gdocs,skype,wordpress] The rate of translation at its peak was staggering, with more than 200 volunteers contributing form all over the world to transcribe and then translate 1,627 voice messages. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that became the most powerful and most productive crowdsourced translation initiative in the history of the web.

In an important and meaningful way, this translation effort allowed English (+ French, + Spanish) speakers around the world to hear and understand views from inside Egypt that international media simply could not - or perhaps would not – access. 

As this was taking place - we began to have concerns for the safety of those people calling the  Speak2Tweet line to leave anti-regime messages, or to share protest plans or updates. Did these people realize the risk involved in calling this untried and potentially insecure telephone number? Translators dutifully redacted names from translations, but many people mentioned their name, with some even giving location  details and other compromising information. No real warning of risk was given in the automated message played to anyone who dialed the Speak2Tweet number. Had the revolution broke differently and had the state telecom operators searched their logs for calls into the numbers set up by Speak2Tweet, the path to tracking down individuals would have been short and simple. We voiced these concerns with the team and with the SayNow engineers, and do think it positively impacted the project editors decisions regarding redactions and publishing.

Which brings us around to the closing point to this talk. Social media is not just social it is societal – the same channels that are transmitting LOLcats are transferring gripping accounts from the frontlines of unfolding history.  It is clear from any observer that our increasingly connected world holds too increasingly interconnected challenges; whether geo-politics, climate, natural resources, or access to knowledge, this generation global understands that we are all in it together. When the revolution took place in Egypt there were billions of people around the world whose hearts came to Tahrir.   But, most of these people were not able to understand the Arabic language testimonials that were painting the ‘ground truth’ of the revolution.

And so it is to the translators of the next generation – and the application designers and developers who will build their tools – to take on the challenge of bringing social media across languages to create real-time understanding through the social web in which we live. When we consider the human costs of a world running on misunderstanding and misinformation, this imagined future cannot arrive soon enough.

Thank you for your time this evening and thanks to the AUC, House of Translation, the Ministry of Culture, and Dr Samia.

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2013-07-05 17:23:44 -0700
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