Crowdsourcing and translation

Crowdsourcing is the act of using the general public to take on, generally for free, work that would normally be assigned to contractors.
Some companies have decided to use crowdsourcing to translate their website, relying on thousands of volunteers to work for them for free (step 6 of the crowdsourcing process above doesn’t always happen) and produce a result that will help them increase their revenue. The results have been of varying quality, with Spanish users of Facebook, in particular, reporting grammatical errrors and confusing terminology.
I can understand why a not-for-profit website might choose to ask its users to translate it in several languages: when budgets are tight, it is tempting to use the skills and good will of others. Besides, members of an online community might have an emotional investment in it and might be only too happy to give up their time for it. The result might not be as good as it might be, had it been done by professionals, but if it’s good enough to attract other users, then the aim has been achieved.
There is a perception out there that, in order to be a translator, all you need is to know two languages. Our profession struggles with recognition and that is why when LinkedIn, a for-profit organisation, sent me an email asking me whether I’d be happy to translate their website for free, to have fun or to get a badge, I was very annoyed, along with a lot of other translators. Not because LinkedIn was choosing to use crowdsourcing, but because, in asking me to give away my services, it seemed to contradict its main aim, which is to help professionals further their career. No professional is going to further her career by accepting to work for free, and as LinkedIn clearly wasn’t interested in supporting me as a professional, I deleted my profile.
When Twitter announced that it was looking for volunteers to translate its interface for free, I wasn’t surprised. There is a real “community” feel about Twitter, and they knew that many people would be interested in contributing to a website that they feel very much a part of. I won’t be helping, as although I love Twitter, I feel decidedly uncomfortable working alongside amateurs, however talented they are, and being associated with a final result that I might not be entirely proud of. I shan’t be deleting my profile either: Twitter has made no claim as to what it can do for my career or professionals in general, and so I see no contradiction there. All I see is a business decision, with which I disagree: in my work, I strive for quality and I’m prepared to pay for it.
It’s a shame that some big companies aren’t prepared to treat their non-English speaking users with enough respect to hand their localisation needs over to professionals, who are best placed to produce a translation which will enhance the experience of all users, whatever their language. In fact, I can even see how crowdsourcing could be used within the translation process: once the work has been done by translators, it could be extremely beneficial to submit it to the community for comment, to make sure that it responds to its needs and respects its inherent culture. This combination of translation expertise and user feedback could be a real recipe for success.
Crowd photo by TwOsE

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:01+00:00 October 12th, 2009|Freelance Translation|13 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Licia October 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

    I think it’s quite interesting to have a look at the Translation Agreement sent out by Twitter, a few additional conclusions to be drawn!

  2. Alex October 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

    hear, hear, –
    excellent point about the distinction between businesses using crowdsourcing and not for profit organizations asking for help.
    will a plumber come out to fix your tap without a call-out charge?
    will you not help your elderly neighbour to fix the tap for free?
    last paragraph, I think, is muddled: once the work has been done by translator… and BEFORE the translator is paid? or AFTER? if the community notices a number of errors, is the translator liable? fee reduced? taken away? professionals do make mistakes too.

  3. céline October 12, 2009 at 10:17 am

    @Licia: yes, those terms are hardly cuddly, are they?
    @Alex: I completely agree with your first point: I am currently doing a pro bono translation for a non-profit organisation whose work (keeping/improving green spaces in urban environments) I admire. I know their budgets are very tight and I’m happy to contribute to their excellent work for free. The same doesn’t apply to LinkedIn or Twitter, who would profit financially from my work.
    About your second point: feedback is a part of any good translation process anyway. When I send a translation, I have no problem with my client getting back to me with queries and I consider that the discussion that ensues is part of my fee. Of course professionals make mistakes, that’s why proofreading is essential. In my example, crowdsourcing would be used to suggest possible improvements to the translation, which would be discussed and agreed with the translator/s, within the rate agreed.

  4. Licia October 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

    @ Céline and Alex, getting feedback from the community on the work done by professionals was what Microsoft was doing with the Terminology Community Forum, . Users could either vote for individual terms or suggest their own alternatives. I used to moderate the Italian forum; it was a very interesting experience and we collected very valuable feedback, but it also confirmed that professional results can only be achieved with professional input, e.g. we might take terminology consistency for granted, but it is not so obvious for those not working with it on a daily basis.

  5. céline October 12, 2009 at 11:08 am

    @Licia: That is very interesting. I’m currently working on a vast project which involves very specialised terminology. Just as the people on the ground wouldn’t have the first clue on how to produce a coherent, accurate and readable translation of their work, I rely on them to help me find out what terms are actually used by their French-speaking colleagues on the ground. I believe that, instead of working in complete isolation, collaboration and a mix of specialised skills/knowledge is the best way to get to the best possible translation.

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard October 12, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    I’ve actually been into two websites that had their users translate the interface, and as a translation student I never felt it as a disservice. LibraryThing (in which effort I actually participated) and ColourLovers are the websites. In the case of LT, this was a wiki-like work (I do not know about CL), so problems like errors could be fixed in a matter of minutes.
    In the case of these sites, I believe asking the userbase is not a bad thing for several.
    -It’s quite safe to say small startups like these might not have the genuine budget to roll out a dozen language versions (I think both sites have around 8 localized versions, that’s actually more language versions than they have employees!)
    -Such websites have a strong participatory input. Remember, they are centered around user-created content to begin with. User-created interface is not exactly alien a concept fropm that standpoint.
    -The userbase wants to help. They genuinely wish to help make the site better, as quickly as possible.
    -The users might feel that the translators are “foreigners”. There is an element “THey changed it, now it sucks” element in translations, especially one with such immediate feedback as a community-forming website, and the users are likely to disagree with translation choices (for example, choices they are over-translated when the users feel a translation closer to the original for a term would have been better). At least in a user-driven translation, they can only blame themselves for poor choices.
    Note, though, that user-driven translation is a specific form of crowdsourced translation.

  7. céline October 12, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    I completely see your point Jean-Sébastien, and I agree that for sites with small budgets, this may indeed be the best option.
    In the two examples I give here, however, money’s not really an issue (in total, Twitter has raised over $57 million), especially as, given the small amount of text, the translation wouldn’t actually cost much. And I do agree that users often have an emotional bond with their sites and communities, but I don’t think it means they are best placed to take on their translation.
    I do believe that LinkedIn and Twitter just see it as freebie, and that a translation is best placed in the hands of professionals, who will know how to capture the tone and atmosphere of a particular community (it is our job!) and render it in the most accurate, user-friendly way. Then the community can comment and offer suggestions on how they think the translation can be improved.

  8. Elizabeth October 13, 2009 at 4:27 am

    Crowdsourcing as feedback on translations would be brilliant! That would be the inverse of what many translators try to do when they “Google poll” terms. 🙂

  9. Dallas October 19, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    An incomplete list of crowd sourcing companies. Please add ones you know.

  10. Dallas October 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Honestly I am against crowd sourcing mainly because it takes away my chances of making money:-).
    If it is an unavoidable trend, I am thinking maybe it can become a business model, a platform where a selected group of paid translators crowd translate jobs. And each translator gets paid according to her credit points she earns according to her amount of participation and peer evaluations.

  11. Sophie REMY October 30, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    As a freelance myself, I do think using crowdsourcing as a feedback on my work and a way to improve it would be a great idea. I regularly work as a team with a reviewer for some clients and I always find his/her comments or corrections very useful. If they are constructive, why take umbrage?
    However, I feel a distinction should be made between crowdsourcing by specialists of a specific subject (such as lawyers when translating a court decision) and by “mere” visitors of a website, as dedicated as they might be. Not sure the latter’s’ inputs would be as useful and relevant.

  12. K Vashee November 6, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I think it is worthwhile for all of us to dig into this to better understand where/if it makes sense for Buyers, LSPs and Translators.
    Much of the criticism of crowdsourcing assumes a zero sum game or market. The thinking is, that if the crowd is involved, a professional translator is displaced and denied payment for services they would generally have rendered for payment. To some extent this may even be true in a world where source content grows by 10%-20% a year and where very standard localization source content is the only focus of the crowd effort like FB and LinkedIn which to my mind are NOT good examples of the real potential of this phenomenon.
    However, I think as the web becomes much more global and corporate website is the first point of contact for information of high value to global customers, the picture changes.
    I think the more likely scenario we face today is that the amount of source content growth is much more dramatic. It is quite possibly 10X or maybe even as much 100X the amount of source content that the localization industry translated last year. The demand for more information to be translated is growing exponentially.
    So then how does a global company looking to grow in new markets solve this problem? Or increase content for existing global markets as community content grows in importance?
    1. The global companies are not going to be given much more (if any at all) money to accomplish this
    2. There are not enough translators to translate 10X or even 2X the source content let alone 100X which is where we are quickly heading
    3. There is not enough time to use a standard TEP process even if money were no object
    So these companies either accept that this cannot be done, or they try completely new approaches to address this need. I think that an emerging model to allow 10X content to be translated at high quality levels is developing and has the following characteristics:
    • Increased use of MT (especially SMT that can learn and continuously improve)
    • Increased use of translation technology platforms (not SDL) that enable large scale collaboration with robust tools and processes
    • Much better interchange of linguistic data across platforms and products and vendors (which by definition rules out SDL)
    • Initial guidance and steering of these “massive scale” projects by skilled language professionals
    • Increasing involvement and use of the bilingual community (or crowd) to get large projects done especially in “new” markets
    • The development of virtuous cycles that enable large amounts (millions of words) of content to be progressively translated at higher and higher quality
    I think we are already seeing evidence of this with the Lionbridge “Translation Workspace” announcement, Lingotek has a crowd and translation management environment designed to help you use both professionals and volunteers and identify quality drivers, and Asia Online is introducing Language Studio Pro to enable the MT piece to be much more tightly integrated into this process: ( ). Moravia is one of the first LSPs to jump into this new model and I am sure we will see more enlightened LSPs also do so in future.
    I think an emerging model for very large amounts of content will be Statistical MT + Expert Linguistic Steering + Professional Translation + Community or crowds
    Can anybody else suggest other ways to address a 10X or a 100X growth in source content that begs to be translated at as low a cost as possible?
    There are also very active discussion going on about this subject in LinkedIn in teh Localization Professionals group as well as the G11n – Globalization Professional groups

  13. céline November 9, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for your contribution K, a lot of food for thought there. I definitely think that crowdsourcing can be a valid translation process, but that professional translators have to be at the heart of it to make sure it delivers quality. To be continued…

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