Is Facebook “translation worthy” or just plain cheap?

I read at Design Across Cultures that Facebook is planning to use “crowdsourcing” to allow its users to create translated content.

Crowdsourcing is a hot new buzzword that is best illustrated by Wikipedia — you take a lot of motivated volunteers, give them access to your Web site, and let them go crazy. I’m simplifying things of course, and crowdsourcing is no cure-all. People sometimes game the system for various reasons. But the net result can amount to something that could never have been created without the crowd involvement.

Now, Wikipedia has next to no money and it’s a non-profit; crowdsourcing is not just a great strategy but a necessity.

And crowdsourcing can be a great way to localize your Web site.

Google relied on crowdsourcing in its early years to translate its search engine interface into more than 60 languages (and still relies on the technique in more limited ways today). Netvibes relied on volunteer translators to quickly localize its interface into more than 60 languages.

Naturally, the idea of having your Web site translated for “free” is alluring to a lot of companies. But very few companies will find that they are translation worthy. Web users will not bother to translate a Web interface if they don’t actually see a need to use the product itself in their native language.

So Is Facebook Translation Worthy?

You can’t fault Facebook for trying to get some free translation help, and I suspect that it will find plenty of volunteer translators, though it will take time. But a part of me can’t help wondering why the company hasn’t just coughed up a few dollars to get its localization efforts moving sooner rather than later. After all, doesn’t the company have a market value of, like, $100 billion?

The challenge with crowdsourcing translations is that nothing is truly free. Facebook has to dedicate people and resources to create the translation workflow and approval processes to ensure that the finished translations are of high quality. These things take time, and time also costs money.

Given the importance of acting quickly when it comes to taking social networking sites global, it seems to me that Facebook would be wise to pay for localization for some core languages and then use crowdsourcing to support the less-strategic languages. This way, Facebook could accelerate tackling those markets that are already seeing Facebook knockoffs (like the Russian knockoff shown below).

Russian facebook

Relying on volunteers to translate content is an emerging trend — one that can give a company a tremendous advantage over its competition. And I think we’ll see many more companies try this strategy in the years ahead.

But before getting started, ask yourself: Is our Web site translation worthy?

UPDATE: Techcrunch provides additional details on Facebook’s translation efforts.

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