The Khan Academy and the kindness of translators

The Khan Academy is out to revolutionize education by providing a free online education through lots and lots of well-produced videos.

A core component of this revolution is the subtitling these 2,700 videos (and counting) into many languages.

To get there, Khan is relying on the kindness of translators.

Currently, Estonian is the leading language, with more than 700 videos dubbed into the language. And you can see above that they’re really just getting started — only 16 languages are currently supported.

I’m not a translator. But if I were, it is nonprofit efforts such as this, Wikipedia and Translators without borders that I would most want to support.

PS: I almost forgot to mention that the engine supporting the subtitles was built by another impressive nonprofit group: Universal Subtitles.

Signs of a translation rebound in Latin America

Idea Factory Languages, with 85 full-time employees and production centers in Brazil and Argentina, specializes in translation and localization for the Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese language markets.

CEO Teddy Bengtsson periodically sends out “state of the business” updates which I always find interesting. I asked him if I could pass along his note and he said yes.

Here is what he had to say…

So – now that we are a couple of months into 2010 – can it be said we are past the worst in terms of the global financial crisis?  Too early to tell I think, but there are some signs suggesting there may be cause for modest optimism.  Up until the end of 2008, the effect of the crisis on IFL’s financial performance had primarily been that revenue growth was slowing down or come to a standstill.  The situation got worse during the first half of 2009, with year on year revenues down by 10-20% over the two quarters.  This pattern continued in the third and fourth, but for the latter it was only marginally down when comparing year on year and we saw a 12% growth compared to the third quarter (despite a seasonally slow December month).  I expect the first quarter of 2010 to be a turning point and we will see positive year on year revenue growth for the first time since 2008.  Naturally, this is partly due to the easier comparisons as the crisis was starting to bite for real early in 2009, but nevertheless significant in terms of direction.  Looking beyond pure financials, we are also seeing increased recruitment activity, growth in some existing client business and new customer acquisitions, adding to the reasons for a cautiously positive sentiment.

Several general and market specific factors continue to be very challenging however.  Price pressure remains as intense as it has been, but I get the impression that the industry is starting to realize it is being pushed too far.  We are seeing instances of returning accounts, i.e. business lost to cheaper suppliers is coming back to IFL as clients realize that a lower price does not mean lower total cost.  In fact, almost without exception the opposite is true as increased management overheads and post-processing costs quickly accumulate to eat up the superficial advantage of a word rate that is a cent or two lower.  Not to mention the truly high cost caused by late and/or sub-standard quality deliveries!  IFL neither can nor want to compete on price alone with the many agencies in our region operating with minimal infrastructures, but I remain confident that service quality and reliability will ultimately generate the true value that makes a partnership sustainable and mutually rewarding.

Market factors in our local production environments tend to be in stark contrast with most parts of the world.  In these times when deflation, salary reductions and declining property markets seem to be the norm, Argentina continues to run its own very different race.  Private consultants estimate that Argentina’s inflation in 2009 was the third highest in the world – only behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Venezuela – strongly contesting the cosmetically enhanced official number below 8% and stating the real figure as somewhere between 15-18%.  As you can imagine, this puts local companies servicing global clients looking for price reductions in a near impossible situation.  Especially larger companies like IFL with a high number of permanent employees, as we cannot simply pass the resulting problems further down the supply chain.  A saving grace has been the easing of the local currency by around 10% against the USD.

Inflation is less of an issue in Brazil, IFL’s other production location.  Although not inexistent – it was close to 5% in 2009 – the bigger challenge here has been the strengthening of the local currency.  When we saw the Brazilian Real going in the opposite direction in 2008, predictably we came under pressure to reduce pricing accordingly.  Unsurprisingly, few are equally eager to suggest that we now increase rates to compensate…!  Seriously though, a pricing correction of 20-25% from January 2009 levels would be perfectly logical from strictly an economic data perspective.  Furthermore, Brazil’s growing stature as a global power is making it an even more attractive target for international companies seeking alternatives to their existing, often troubled, markets.  This is becoming evident in increased competition for the relatively scarce competent translation/localization resources, so my recommendation is to expect to pay reasonable rates and make sure to find a partner you can trust.

How well does your baby’s name translate?

I’ve long maintained that translation agencies need to get creative if they are to succeed in the age of machine translation.

London-based Today Translations is doing just that — offering a Name Audit Service for soon-to-be parents.

Do you think Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would have chosen Suri for their daughter had they known it meant “pickpocket” in Japanese?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

According to the agency’s web site:

Name changes later in life can be embarrassing, expensive and riddled with hassle. That’s why we offer a Name Translation Audit designed to help you consider the multilingual implications of giving your baby an unusual name.

For just £1,000, our brilliant team of 2600 linguists will check the meaning of baby names in 100 languages. Better safe than Suri.

Isn’t your baby worth it?

TED is looking for a few good translators

For translation crowdsourcing to work, first you need crowds.

And TED, which has been using the crowd to provide translation of its videos, is looking for a few more participants. Here’s a recent blog posting:

Wanted: Translators
The goal of TED’s Open Translation Project is to bring ideas worth spreading to the wider world by offering TEDTalks with subtitles in as many languages as possible. Still, many of the world’s languages aren’t yet represented in the project, and we want to fill those gaps. Today, we’re putting out a call to translators worldwide to help us translate the languages that the project hasn’t yet covered.

We’re looking for translators who speak these languages, in particular:

  • Akan
  • Assamese
  • Filipino
  • Galician
  • Gujarati
  • Icelandic
  • Khmer
  • Maltese
  • Marathi
  • Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Panjabi
  • Sinhala
  • Tagalog
  • Tibetan
  • Tswana
  • Yoruba
  • Zulu

In some cases, translations in the languages above have already been completed, but remain unpublished because they still need to be reviewed. (Some of the languages only have one translator.)

These languages aren’t exactly what the translation industry would call Tier 1. That is, there simply isn’t as deep pool of translators to draw from. Which is why any crowdsourcing strategy must take into account the size of the potential crowd.

So how is TED doing so far with its crowdsourcing project?

This menu should give you an idea of what languages are covered and to what extent. Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese are doing best by far.

ted_languages_content

For roughly six months of work, TED appears to be doing quite well.

Translation crowdsourcing is the new black — and you can tweet me on that

bird-translator

Was there any doubt that Twitter would not try to crowdsource its translations?

After Facebook proved that it could use volunteers to go from 1 to 100 languages in two years, it was just a matter of time before Twitter adopted the same model.

Twitter is starting out with the FIGS (French, Italian, German, and Spanish). And here is a video tutorial from Twitter that shows you how how the platform works.

Crowdsourcing is the new black these days, and much of it deserved. But despite the buzz, companies should be very careful before embracing the model.

Very few companies are translation-worthy

Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, TED, and Twitter have legions of fans who are happy to lend their translation skills. But few corporate sites or services are so translation worthy. And there’s the ever-constant risk of translator backlash or burnout. We are in uncharted territory, and as more companies pursue this model, we’re going to see more and more efforts backfire. Hey, maybe we’ll even see companies begin to “pay” their volunteers in non-monetary forms of compensation. Which leads me to…

Crowdsourcing may not save you much on translation

The translation platform, the management of the platform, the management of the volunteers — they all require resources. And the odds are that you’ll still want to retain professional translators to manage the amateurs, which is not a bad thing. There is a peace of mind in having a vendor who does this sort of thing for a living signing off on a newly localized web site before it goes live. In the end, translation crowdsourcing is not about saving money.

As far as I can tell, Twitter has only a thousand or so text strings that require translation. In the time the company devoted to building this translation platform, it could probably have had the site localized in 50 or more languages.

Over time there probably will be cost savings, but I would argue that cost savings should not be the motivator and probably wasn’t the motivator for Twitter.

The platform companies develop to support crowdsourcing should have other measures of success, such as user engagement and testing, partner opportunities, and developer involvement.

For example, on the Twitter Translate information page, this paragraph jumped out at me:

Will my favorite applications be translated, too?
We know that Twitter is not all about Twitter.com, so our global reach shouldn’t be limited to Twitter.com either. That’s why we’re planning to give our developer community access to the translation files so they can create wonderful apps that use the translations, too.

This is where Twitter is headed with the platform, as well as Facebook and Google. Once you have the platform, you can get creative with it — expand it to developers so that they can quickly localize their apps. You can even try to open up the platform for “partner” sites to use — which is what Facebook is now doing.

As companies comes to grips with social media, they are slowly learning to let go. Employees blog and tweet. Customers post content on corporate sites, and now they are co-creating the localized products.

The top-down localization model is giving way to the bottom-up model, and this is a profound change, even if it’s limited to a handful of companies — albeit companies that represent a few hundred million users. I’m still trying to understand how far this phenomenon will go.