The Meedan Blog Archive

Translatedesk: Social Translation for Social Media

co-written by Ed Bice, Tom Trewinnard and An Xiao Mina

 Collaborative translation at the AUC House of Translation - Photo by Rania Salem

When Barack Obama made his first visit to Israel as president, the whole world, and especially the Middle East, paid attention. And as he took to lectern before a packed hall of students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, the world watched. And they tweeted. They tweeted in Arabic, in Hebrew, in English, commenting in real-time and in dialogue, using Twitter for what it’s so well designed for.

We saw a variety of tweets, like the ones below, that discussed the event in Arabic:

أوباما أهلاً وسهلاً بك في فلسطين سامحني لا أستطيع أن أخفي حسدي. أنت الأمريكي تشم رائحة الأرض التي لا يحق لي أنا الفلسطينية أن أدوسها وأقبلها

— Dima Khatib أنا ديمة (@DimaKhatib) <a href="">March 21, 2013


"Welcome to Palestine Mr Obama. I can't hide my jealousy: You as an American can breathe the air of a land that I, as a Palestinian, cannot touch" - Dima Khatib

Here at Meedan, we believe that technology can facilitate mutual understanding across cultures and continents through language translation. However, despite great advances in machine translation, language barriers continue to prevent broader, more networked discourse. Events of international importance, such as Obama’s speech, the recent selection of the new Pope, and the 2013 Kenya elections, often prompt a flurry of responses from a wide variety of users in multiple languages. Most of these conversations and trending topics remain siloed in their own linguistic worlds.

This is where Translatedesk, our newest project, can provide a much-needed bridge. Translatedesk is designed to facilitate the new kinds of translation that are happening on the real time social web. Our team member Ed spoke about some of these challenges in depth at the House of Translation lecture series in Cairo last month, but suffice to say the translator’s relationship to her subject and task is set to evolve just as dramatically as is the well-documented changing role of the author/journalist in our social media era.

This is why we feel there is a need for a new translation tool.

While we put out a proposal for the project last year to the Knight Foundation, we found a clearer route to developing the project as an adjunct to our Checkdesk project - hence ‘desky’ lineage - with full disclaimer for parallel discovery and affinity with our very good friends at Sourcefabric. So, three months ago we brought our good friend and social translation all-star An Xiao Mina on team to guide the design and specification. An’s work is supported by a team of social translation designers, engineers, and practitioners including Chris Blow, Karim Ratib, Maya Zankoul, Tom Trewinnard, Anas Qtiesh, and Ed Bice. Collectively, this team has played in role in several of the web’s most interesting and successful social translation projects to date, including: An’s Birdnest: Ai Weiwei English; the #JAN25 Twitter Translation efforts using; and the Speak2Tweet Translation project.

Born of practise, Translatedesk is designed to support the work of existing communities doing this work and to encourage the creation of new communities around interest areas that might be driven by keyword, hashtag, event, or individual. Acting as a combination of a versatile client and rich repository, Translatedesk is web-based software designed to streamline the process of creating, requesting and reviewing translations across the multitude of languages available on the internet, from Arabic to Mandarin to Spanish to English, and beyond.

Let’s break it down into specifics. This is what Translatedesk can provide:

Improve access for journalists, researchers and casual users to read and participate in social media conversations conducted in languages they do not speak.

Provide a collaborative platform for multilingual social media users to carry one language into another. This means anyone can contribute to translation in real time, in concert with users around the world.

Provide access for social media users who don’t speak a given language to have their messages translated from their language into a target language.

Through the use of collaboration, editorial review and a reputation system, ensure reliable and consistent translations with the highest possible quality.

Enable simple and easy organization of messages by event, community and/or topic of interest.

Language boundaries continue to create a barrier to broad distribution of content and knowledge. Even without firewalls, the internet remains divided by language, with users of most social media sites largely interacting only with those from similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds. And as more of the world comes online, the need for viable conversation and interaction online will be even more critical.

Overall, Translatedesk can streamline the process of translation, curation and consumption of real time messages, with a variety of built-in features like a glossary, machine suggestions and even a backchannel chat to help human translators deliver the best translations in the moment. We want to increase the range of voices that dialogue together, and we think that can happen with a combination of talented people online supported by effective tools tailored for real-time translation.

Why are we blogging about this now? Well, it probably has something to do with being very excited about the work An is doing and it probably has something to do with the fact that I just came back from a Hewlett Conference where I sat with Matthew Smith, his Dad Mike, and Cathy Casserly discussing the power of opening up systems in ways that might feel slightly uncomfortable but that yield the benefits of feedback, collaboration, and unexpected connections.

So, really, let us know what you think about social translation of tweets. Do you translate social media? Do you follow any translated feeds? What has been the greatest value for you, and how would you want better technology to facilitate communication across languages?

Comments on this post

2013-07-04 18:28:39 -0700
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2013-10-12 03:25:25 -0700
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