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The Lowdown on Translation Crowdsourcing: Overview and Benefits for Volunteers


Back in 2008, Facebook asked its users to help translate its then unlocalized site into other languages – within a year of launching this project, Facebook was available in 16 languages. Following Facebook’s success with translation crowdsourcing, other companies and organizations started to adopt the idea of utilizing volunteer translators for their localization needs. The rest is history, with more success stories or failed efforts.

Because volunteers donate their translations without getting paid, many tend to assume that translation crowdsourcing is cost-free to implement; however, this is far from the truth. The engineering cost of building and managing a proprietary translation platform on which volunteers can work is a hefty expense, especially when they include features like WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get, aka in-context review). In fact, this expense is often the same as or bigger than hiring professional translators or a vendor to translate your content.

Another assumption about translation crowdsourcing is that translation quality would be inferior to that of using a language services provider or (paid) professional translators. However, sometimes multilingual volunteer users are better translators than professional ones depending on the industry or products that are being localized. Take gaming, for example. When newly released video games are sequels to previous releases, it is vital to the user experience that not only the storylines from the previous games continue and are coherent, but also use consistent terminology and names of key characters or places. Gamers often complain about bad translations they find while playing, so much to the point they share their own translations on community forums and make pleas to the developer. So in this case, it does not matter whether a professional translator has 10+ experience; if the experience is in the wrong field like legal or medical, then can we really assume that they will be just as good at translating game scripts? The developer is probably much better off with a passionate user of the game who also happens to be bilingual for delivering the best user experience for the target locale. And it’s the passionate users who are more likely donate their free time and knowledge to contribute as a volunteer translator.

Other methods and strategies to improve translation quality of volunteers include the following: a tier-system among the volunteers and very good reference materials for volunteers. For example, TED and Coursera “promote” highly involved, experienced and skilled volunteers to language coordinators for management of a specific language community of volunteers. Language coordinators can accept or reject a volunteer’s translations after reviewing them to see if they are error-free and follow the provided reference materials like style guides and glossaries. This checks-and-balances procedure of a tier-system allows additional review process to ensure higher quality of the volunteer translations.

If not free and involves the risk of potential quality issues, then why do companies still explore the option of translation crowdsourcing? The obvious and most important benefit of translation crowdsourcing is faster turnaround time; with volunteers working around the clock, a company can deliver localized content within days as opposed to months. Some enter new markets with languages they haven’t considered localizing into before because volunteers willingly take the first initiative to do so. And these benefits are well-worth the engineering cost for many companies and organizations wanting to expand their global presence and user base. Then what are the benefits for the volunteers? And since we are Women in Localization, how can women benefit from contributing to community localization as a volunteer?

Job seekers sigh when they spot the phrase “X years of experience required” – sound familiar? For many, it’s not such an easy task to break into an industry and start building “X years of experience” when so few are willing to give you the first chance. Not exclusive to translation, volunteering can be a great way to start your career, whether you are a young professional wanting to gain experience, an experienced professional venturing into a new industry, or a stay-at-home mother wanting to continue professional development on her own schedule. In fact, one of my very first professional experiences as a translator began with volunteering, not too long after graduating from college: TED’s Open Translation Project. It was the perfect opportunity for me to not only hone my translation skills and build experience, but also associate myself with a cool, big-name organization like TED. Translating for TED quickly turned into a new, paid freelancing opportunity at Amara Subtitles, which gave me an edge over other candidates when interviewing for my next job. Accumulated volunteering experience for a same organization can also lead to other opportunities. Many organizations turn dedicated and experienced volunteers into full-time or permanent positions; through these roles, volunteers can take on great responsibilities and duties, including but not limited to project management and vendor management, that will provide further professional development and serve as a stepping stone to more opportunities.

Volunteering can also yield to great networking opportunities, especially if the platform harnesses a good online community and network of volunteers, through which they can give and receive mentoring and support. Going back to TED as an example, every year few chosen volunteer translators with hefty contributions get a complimentary invitation to attend a TED talk, which can cost thousands of dollars per attendee. TED also hosts a Translator Workshop and Summit every now and then, inviting volunteer translators to attend for discussions and networking, another amazing professional development opportunity.

So whether you are new to the world of localization or an experienced professional, try out community localization for yourself! You never know what other exciting roads it will lead you to, perhaps your best one yet.