Facebook and Translation

With the beginning of the new year, Facebook launched its new crowdsourcing application for translations, allowing its users to provide free translations for its webpage. While this approach to translation will no doubt save the company millions of dollars, it will also no doubt introduce many errors, bugs, and questionable solutions, also at a considerable cost.

For more information on the application, see Facebook translations. Languages currently available include French, German, and Spanish, and languages open for translation included Catalan, Danish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, and a dozen others. New languages are being suggested daily.

As with any new program, many bugs exist, and the translation discussions are at a primitive stage, such as whether to us the formal or informal you form in Spanish. With time, the bugs will get worked out and the house translation style will emerge. Yet questions remain about using amateur translators vs. professionals.

At the Translation Center, I work very hard to improve the quality of translation and to increase the pay for practicing translators. We find that the fee we charge for translation services is well worth it: it is often harder to fix a broken translation than to start over fresh with a competent language professional; the cultural prestige of a company can be damaged severely by unprofessional representation; and time spent managing error-prone workers is time that could be well served on other company matters.

The jury is still out on the Facebook approach. Strong criticism exists, such an article on Facebook’s faulty translation by Tomoko Hosaka circulated April 21, 2008. Hosaka quotes a Spanish translator Ana B. Torres who called the translations “extremely poor,” citing “outrageous spelling mistakes” such as ase instead of hace (for “makes” or “does”) and usage of the word lenguaje for “language” rather than the correct idioma. Positive reviews exist, too. Rodney Rumford at FaceReviews writes, “I love it. There are already 839 people translating the site to Spanish. All for a whopping cost of ZERO Dollars. Users also vote on translations (up or down). This just might be the first high visibility use case of a facebook application for mass collaboration. Hello Wikipedia.”

Wikepedia uses a similar crowdsourcing approach to translating their website, but they are a non-profit organization. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar company. There is an ethics question here to think about, and I am greatly interested in what others think. Yet for better or for worse, crowdsourcing translations are here to stay, and we must all deal with it in our own way.

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