Localizing with community translation

In 2011, the buzz around the community is like the buzz around the post-PC era in 2010 and the cloud in 2009. Perhaps it is an over-used word and concept, or perhaps it is a brilliant new approach to business. Whichever it is, many localization teams and companies are trying to figure out how to create communities of users that can engage internationally and get work done quicker and more cheaply.

This is not about social media marketing in the industry (see sidebar on page 42). It is rather a way to use community tools to make sure a company is communicating with its constituents wherever they are. And it also is not about doing something like translation for free. Creating and managing a community translation network are time consuming and require professional oversight.

A few companies and nonprofits are forging the way, and what they have learned can benefit everyone. We will look at four successful community translation programs: Translators without Borders, Kiva.org, Adobe and Google. How they are using community translation programs differs greatly.

“The business driver for community translation is simply engagement with the community that exists,” says Janice Campbell, international program manager at Adobe. “It is not just about setting up the technology to run translations to take the human element out of the process. It is actually about engaging.” She added that while there may be a slight cost savings gained by running translations through a community translation platform, the amount is minimal because, in the case of Adobe, most of the translations are into languages that would not have been otherwise supported. Campbell has talked often about community translation. She points out that you can extend your reach to new markets; improve quality by getting feedback on terminology from the community of users who really know the products; possibly save costs (although this is true for nonprofits more than for-profit companies); increase scalability with many contributors able to accomplish a lot of translated words; and, finally and most importantly, increase engagement with the community of users.

Sergio Pelino, senior localization operations manager at Google, agrees that engagement with the community is critical, but so are cost savings. Google is in the process of establishing a direct-to-freelancer community translation program that is quite different from that at Adobe. Adobe works with users of their products, many of whom are identified in user forums and groups around the world and most of whom are not professional translators. They are not paid for their translations and are generally compensated through recognition and the fact that they contributed to the overall improvement of the product they use. Google, on the other hand, is establishing a community of vetted translators who will be paid for their services and who will interact directly with the Google team using a sophisticated technology platform.

According to Pelino, while cost was a driver, the most important reasons Google developed the program were to increase overall quality of translations and to ensure speed of delivery. “We wanted to get closer to the process than we were with multilingual vendors running our localization,” says Pelino. One year into the direct-to-freelancer program, which is currently operating for two languages, Pelino says they have already realized a cost savings. “But as we scale with more languages and more translations, the important question will be whether we can maintain quality and delivery speed, which are the most important criteria of success.”

Naomi Baer, senior director, global partner operations at Kiva
.org, a not-for-profit organization with the mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, developed a community translation program out of necessity. When the nonprofit was quite small, it recognized the need to translate lending appeals in order to find lenders. “Initially when we were small, it probably would have been more cost effective to outsource a few translations rather than build the infrastructure for a community platform. But as we grew quickly in the last few years, it was clear we could not have scaled up without the community translation program in place.”

Baer is a firm believer in the importance of maintaining strong ties with the community — communicating regularly with them, providing opportunities for recognition, training them as needed, and simply being part of their world. She notes that one of the misconceptions about community is that bigger is better. “While increasing translation volume, we have deliberately reduced the numbers in our community and are focusing more on engagement with that community. That is what makes it successful.” 

Lori Thicke agrees. “Translators without Borders is all about community,” says Thicke, cofounder of Translators without Borders, a US-based 501(c)(3) charity with a Paris-based sister organization called Traducteurs sans Frontières. Both organizations are nonprofits that provide pro bono translations to support global humanitarian work. “In the early days of Traducteurs sans Frontières, back in the 1990s, our approach was based on the old translation company model. A non-governmental organization (NGO) such as Doctors Without Borders would request a translation, and the project manager would place it with the appropriate translator. When the Haiti crisis began, we realized that if we wanted to respond to the overwhelming need for our services, we had to get out of the middle of the process and let the community manage itself.” With the goal of creating a self-managing online community of professional translators who work directly with NGOs, Translators without Borders approached ProZ.com for help in programming a community platform. “We had literally thousands of translators volunteering, and we wanted a platform that could automatically link them up with the aid groups that needed their help,” says Thicke.

Today, the Translation Center that ProZ.com programmed lets approved NGOs post their projects directly to the web. Once the project has been posted, vetted volunteers in that language pair are alerted that a project that may interest them is available. The first volunteer to respond picks up the project and returns the translation, all without the involvement of a human project manager. “The new Translators without Borders Translation Center means that we can help many more NGOs,” says Enrique Cavalitto, who manages hundreds of thousands of words from community-donated translations each month.

“The community needs us to facilitate the process with technology, but not manage it from the top down,” says Françoise Henderson, a board member for Translators without Borders and chief operating officer for Rubric where she helps manage communities of translators, especially in Africa. “The translation quality is actually higher because individuals are engaged with a project and with the requesting NGO. They know why the work is important, and they have that relationship. People are part of the Translators without Borders community, but they are also in individual relationships with the client, and that’s what makes the difference.”

So what does all of that mean for the future of multilingual vendors and the language services industry? “I don’t see language service providers going away. We are never going to give up professional translators, but community is used for other purposes,” says Campbell. In a recent webinar on community translation, Campbell explained that it is not a decision between professionals or the crowd, but rather using both and shifting roles. Professionals may have new, more specialized roles, such as vetting the crowd of translators or organizing and listening to the crowd. She added that in many cases the languages being translated by the community are those that would not have had translated materials without the community; in fact, more words overall are translated because of the community.

The role multilanguage vendors play in the world of community translation is changing, and there may be innovative ways to participate. Interestingly, in the age of community translation, “work at LSPs can actually increase, not decrease,” said Hans Fenstermacher, board chair of the Globalization and Localization Association. “Forward-thinking LSPs are combining technologies — such as wikis, social networks and machine translation — with traditional translation and innovative management approaches to offer their clients a mix of services and levels of quality. It’s an exciting time.” As Pelino of Google pointed out, it takes a lot of work to put the infrastructure in place for a community translation program, and no one understands the technology better than those at LSPs who have used it. The project management piece is also critical. It is clear that you cannot just let the technology loose to run the community. Those who best understand how project managers support community translation platforms will be best positioned to play a role.