Creating a global platform for creative writing and translating

To support the creation of cultural assets it is necessary to provide spaces of dialogue and exchange. The Viennese Kaffeehaus is widely acknowledged as one of the most famous examples of cultural meeting points. Its highest popularity was during and shortly after the Austro-Hungarian Empire (early twentieth century), which consisted of many different cultures and languages, turning Vienna and its many coffee houses into multicultural melting pots. Similar coffee cultures emerged throughout Europe in places such as Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Historically these spaces can be traced back to traditions where intellectual exchange was made possible without being a member of an academic institution, which had previously only been accessible to the privileged.

Guests of the Viennese coffeehouses could come together in an egalitarian, noncommercial space for cultural exchange, triggering both debate and innovation. The Kaffeehouse platform seeks to reincarnate the Viennese coffeehouse within a digital and globally-accessible online platform via the medium of short form text, with a specific focus on poetry. The name of the platform is based on German-English wordplay, with Kaffee meaning coffee in English and house meaning Haus in German. 

The overall mission of Kaffeehouse is to bring more literature to more readers and ensure there is a means to facilitate lively discussion around the offered literature. Bringing more literature to more readers will eventually require translation. Poetry specifically has been seen as one of the most difficult text forms to translate, which has led to limited access to this text category. Furthermore, due to the complexity of poetry, it is possible that one poem can have multiple different translations in the same target language depending on the cultural background and language knowledge of the translator. This avenue opens several opportunities for the wider literature and translation community. It is the belief of the founders of Kaffeehouse that there is no single perfect translation for culturally loaded texts such as poetry — the translations move and adapt depending on time and language.

Exploring Kaffeehouse

Via the Kaffeehouse home page (Figure 1) the user can explore and search literature by navigating either via Karte (German for menu) or by using the explore option. The Karte page provides different navigational filters, such as Genre, Region and Language. 

After selecting text the user can consume the text via the Buch (German for book) page (Figure 2). The main feature of this page is the one-to-one source-target view. This ensures that the reader can view both the source (on the left) and the target (on the right). The information around the text indicates the source author and source language on the left. On the right the target language and translator name is indicated. Each source can have multiple translations either in different target languages or multiple versions of the same target language. It is important to note that Kaffeehouse works closely with independent publishers to ensure the source text is of high quality. The translations on the other hand are crowdsourced, and therefore open opportunities for consuming the text in interesting language pairs. This results in a one-to-many relationship. One source can have an unlimited number of translations.

A future iteration of the platform will allow so called two-tier translations. This enables a translation in a specific target language, a pivot or vehicular language, to be translated into another target language. Especially for rare language pairs, this will ensure a wider language reach and diversity due to the limited availability of translators. For example, source texts in rare African languages would not source translators into rare Asian languages. In addition to reading text, the Buch page allows translators to promote their work via its social media sharing functionality.

Each book page has a dashboard attached (Figure 3) that is switched off by default. The dashboard opens up additional sections with contextual information about the text and allows commenting and discussion. This includes audio for readings or educational content and a comment section to discuss the work. 

Kaffeehouse communities

To reimagine the early twentieth century coffeehouse, it is important to briefly discuss what communities are attracted to a digital version of a coffeehouse. The main communities are readers, authors, publishers and translators. Each community has distinct traits and motivation. The key is to ensure the platform caters to all four communities. Publishers want to use the platform to assess translation demand, find translators and promote their publications. Translators seek to promote their work and enable an easier and better-supported translation process. Authors want to reach out and communicate with readers and translators experiencing their text. For this a forum and comment section is provided. Finally, readers want easy access to texts of interest with the best possible reading experience on any device. This access includes being able to consume text in a language of their choosing and also allowing readers to understand and learn how the source and target texts have evolved.

Kaffeehouse works closely with independent publishers with a specific focus on Africa and Asia. These publishers are keen on using Kaffeehouse as a platform to access European and US markets, as they may lack both the translation budget and technical knowledge to facilitate wider global access to their works. The text is sourced and uploaded by the Kaffeehouse team and visible only to registered and logged-in users. The upload process involves specifying text attributes both about the publisher but also about the text, which includes lexicographic features such as rhyme structure as metadata for search filtering, recommendations and personalization features.

For a translator to upload translations, Kaffeehouse has implemented two different modes of translators: translators and “trusted” translators. Both user types have access to a text interface by clicking on the + sign beside the translated text (see Figure 2). In each case the platform associates the user name to the translation and uses the language the translator specifies when uploading the text. The main difference between both translator types is that the trusted translator is granted a permission that pushes the submitted translation directly to the platform without further validation. Making a translator a “trusted” translator involves a personal interview to ensure the translator is personally known to the Kaffeehouse team and that they have some sort of professional track record or credentials.

Current market

The explosion of digital content has dramatically changed the value capture for global publishers. Internet users’ willingness to pay for books, magazines and newspapers has dropped significantly and media companies recognize that they must adapt to user demands and cultivate online customer relationships to stay competitive. Platforms such as Oyster, Scribd and Genius have shown exactly how publishing houses are willing to accept a new ecosystem and find new ways to profit from the growth of the ebook market, which is valued at roughly $14.5 billion.

However, a new publishing ecosystem presents challenges for smaller players, and it remains difficult to navigate the gaps between major conglomerates and smaller independent publishers. As a result, European, African and Asian publishers often fail to reach wider global audiences, and the inefficiency and the lack of reliable market projections make the value chain build up a slow and unpredictable process. There are two main reasons that could be identified: lack of market access and lack of translations. It is the mission of Kaffeehouse to answer both challenges and to ensure more literature is brought to more people in more languages.

Although Kaffeehouse has been crafted as essentially a free community platform, it needs to find a sustainable revenue model for its long-term viability. Currently Kaffeehouse has not selected a final or preferred business model and is funded by its founders. Translations are crowdsourced and conducted on a volunteer basis. It is possible that featured translations will be paid in the near future to ensure high quality. Although the translated texts are often very challenging, the translation costs should stay rather low due to the self-imposed limitation to short form. Furthermore, the promotional advantages of Kaffeehouse for the translators should keep the necessary cash contribution low.

Overall, four business models are currently being considered. The first is based on a freemium model. This type of business model is widely used by online publishers such as Springer Publishing or The New York Times. The idea is to create a mix between free and paid access. Users can access a certain amount of content per day, week or month, after which further access would need to be paid for. The second possible business model is based on potential engagement with publishers. Here the idea is to create a marketing space for independent publishers that allows them to advertise new publications to the Kaffeehouse community. A purchase option would be provided, and would include a small transaction fee as revenue for Kaffeehouse. The third business model would focus on the matchmaking of translators and publishers. In this approach, Kaffeehouse would take a fee for successfully matching a translator with a publisher.

Another publisher benefit stems from data analytics that can be performed on the platform. Based on understanding reader interest in the source text and translations, it is possible to predict translation publishing markets. Larger publishing houses also need to gain market knowledge and find new and inspiring independent publishing houses to work with.

It is possible that all four considered business models would be executed at the same time due to the cash-poor nature of the translation and independent publishing markets. Realistically, a mix of business models could ensure operational cost coverage of the platform midterm, with a longer-term goal of building up a small profit margin that should allow for exploring new markets, such as the curation of educational anthologies or supporting creative writing and creative translation courses. 

The current de facto model is open (free of charge) for contributing users who engage on a regular and ongoing basis. For example, translators who have been contributing regularly have free lifetime access to the platform, as do uploading publishers and authors. A small charge applies for readers who are purely consuming users.

Kaffeehouse skirts a line between translation publishing and the digital language learning market. A platform for learning, it belongs to the education tech and language learning industry. As an open source translation site, it complements the independent publishing market; and as a translation data and library provider, it belongs to the translation industry.