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July 1, 2011, noon

The revolution will be translated: Global Voices’ citizen-powered site experiments with English-second

When Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon created Global Voices in 2004, English was the language of the blogosphere.

“A lot of the people who were using weblogs were writing in English even if it wasn’t their first language,” Zuckerman said. “You would see top Arabic bloggers writing first and foremost in English because they wanted that global audience.”

So Global Voices — a news site about places where English isn’t spoken — was built on English. The idea is that it’s an efficient “bridge language,” reaching a larger potential audience: More translators can do English to Swahili than, say, Tagalog to Swahili.

The site was opened up to translators in 2007 under Project Lingua — a movement that sprang up from the community — but GV still required that all original content be composed in English.

The problem with that workflow? Most of GV’s bloggers don’t speak English as a first language. “People started saying, ‘Look, I work for GV Français, and I write much better in French than I do in English. Why should I have to write in English first and then in French?'” Zuckerman said.

So Global Voices is experimenting with a decentralized, English-second workflow for the first time in its history. Paula Góes, the site’s multilingual editor, is leading the transition.

“The Internet has made the world much, much smaller, but language is still probably the only barrier that really makes it difficult for people to understand each other,” said Góes.

Góes is helping Global Voices build a (virtual) multilingual newsroom, with bloggers and editors assigned to regions and languages. If breaking news happens in South America, a blogger on the ground can choose to write in Spanish first. “It’s obviously much easier for them to write in their own language,” Góes said. “It takes less time for them, too. We’re able to get their stories out there quicker.” The goal is stories that are richer, more nuanced, more genuine. And it opens Global Voices to much wider pool of would-be volunteers.

Paula Góes, Global Voices Multilingual Editor

It all sounds kind of obvious, Zuckerman said — why not let people write in their first language? — but the translations pose a lot of challenges for the organization.

“At the end of the day, everything that ends up on Global Voices in any language is the responsibility of our managing editor, Solana Larsen. And Solana speaks five languages, but she doesn’t speak 30,” Zuckerman told me. “The question became, if we start writing in Chinese first, which Solana does not speak, how can she be responsible for what comes out?”

There was a lot of resistance to decentralization, at least at first. While GV is seen as a pillar of open, citizen-powered media, Zuckerman noted, it’s hardly lawless. “We always have to remind people that we have boatloads of editors. We are a heavily, heavily edited platform,” he said.

“We don’t want to do this in a way that people say, ‘Oh yeah, that Spanish Global Voices, that’s much further to the left than GV is’…. That would be a sign that we’re doing it wrong.” Under the new model, each language site is trusted to enforce its own editorial standards.

So far, the experiment has paid off richly. For example: “Our francophone Africa coverage had been pretty poor. It was not our strongest section,” Zuckerman said. “It’s gotten better by leaps and bounds since we’ve done this. The francophone West Africans who are part of our community are just much more comfortable writing in French. They write more and they write better.”

To continue the improvement, Góes’ job is to find efficiencies in translation, study metrics, help define best practices, figure out what works. The ultimate goal is to reach more readers in more countries — and English still plays an essential role. All stories are translated to English first, as a rule, but that can take half an hour, a day, two days. “It depends on the urgency or the resources we have,” Góes said.

One helpful thing: Translators for individual language sites can volunteer to take on a story. “We don’t really tell people to translate anything,” Góes said. “It’s completely up to the community. We trust that they will know what posts will be more interesting to their own readers or more important to show in their countries.”

Translators are every bit as much journalists as the writers, because good translation requires an appreciation for context. How do you translate an article about female genital mutilation into Malagasy, for example, when the concept is foreign to an audience in Madagascar? And then there are links, which point to resources outside of the site’s control — resources that will most likely be in a language that’s different than the one spoken by a story’s intended audience. Translators at Global Voices follow each link to try to find relevant alternatives. Google Translate can’t do all that. (Nor does it cover all the languages GV does.)

“If you really want to understand a culture, have a deep understanding about culture, and you don’t speak the language, you cannot really rely on Google Translate,” Góes said. “How would you be able to understand the situation in Syria through Google Translate? I would’t trust Google to let me know about the world.”

Global Voices is like the Red Cross in that the leadership team is paid, but most of the staff volunteers. That means the quality of a language site depends on the time, talent, and interest of unpaid people. (Góes reminded me that her staff is always looking for volunteers. She recently put up an FAQ page for would-be translators.)

I had to ask, what does motivate people to do all this work for free?

“Two things,” Góes said. “One is learning, because when you translate about any other country in the world, you learn so much about it. You have to do research. It’s really, really exciting. I think it’s quite easy to get hooked to.

The other thing? “People think it’s important to bring perspectives into their languages, present them to their friends who can’t speak English in a way that’s not biased.”

Photo of Paula Góes by David Sasaki used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     July 1, 2011, noon
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