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Freelance Translators Clash with LinkedIn over Crowdsourced Translation
Posted by Nataly Kelly on June 19, 2009  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization
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This week, LinkedIn sent a survey to language professionals to capture their feedback on potential participation in what Common Sense Advisory calls "CT3" -- community, crowdsourced, and collaborative translation. What was the reaction among freelancers to LinkedIn's call for volunteers? Outrage, mixed with ample confusion.

Professional translators balked at the request from LinkedIn, posting numerous comments that boil down to a single question, "Why should I work for free, especially for a for-profit company?" The translators' dismay at the situation even led to the formation of a new LinkedIn Group, Translators Against Crowdsourcing for Commercial Business. Since its formation three days ago, the group has attracted 225 members. Why are so many people up in arms? We see three reasons:
  • Most people don't value what translators do. Freelance translators work tirelessly to dispel the myth that any person who speaks two languages can be a translator. Yet, this is the attitude they face on a near-daily basis. When non-professionals do work for free, it undermines the very profession that freelancers have struggled to build. The job is so oft-misunderstood that translators frequently hear comments like, "Oh, my sister took some French in high school… I bet she’d be a great translator!" This is akin to telling your doctor, "I took a biology class once… I bet I'd be great at your job!" Yet, it is this unfortunate and inaccurate perception that translators constantly face -- and wish to erase.

  • Freelancers are guarded, and understandably so. As individuals who are in business for themselves, freelancers have to watch out for their best interests, as they can be a particularly vulnerable group. Stories of freelancers who were not paid for their work – either by end clients or language service providers (LSPs) are common in the industry. So, any organization that approaches these once-bitten-twice-shy professionals is likely to raise suspicion if there is any implication that work will be carried out without pay.

  • Most language professionals don't understand CT3. For translators who have not worked on a CT3 project, the idea conjures the image of a greedy corporation that is unwilling to fork over the money to pay for professional translation. Of course, those who have managed these efforts -- or researched them -- know that this is not the case. A huge information gap separates the companies interested in carrying out CT3 projects and the enormous pool of professional translators who have yet to ever hear of such a thing.
Now that we've shed some light on the perspective of freelancers, let's take a look at the viewpoints of the organizations such as Facebook, Microsoft, Plaxo, and Sun that engage in CT3 initiatives, as detailed in our reports on this topic:
  • Cost savings are not a motivation of CT3. Our research reveals that the companies engaging in this practice do so for three reasons: speed (faster time to market), quality improvement (end-user involvement boosts quality), and reach (a collaborative approach extends global reach through word-of-mouth marketing and community-building).

  • Subject-matter experts and actual end users ("customers") help boost quality. Contrary to what freelancers may believe, the companies that used CT3 approaches had a vested interest in ensuring quality. For this reason, many had not only translated into a given language, but created regional variations of a language. Thus, Facebook in Spanish (Colombia) uses phrases that are more appropriate for the local users, while Facebook in Spanish (Spain) and Spanish (Mexico) are also localized. Actual users help to ensure that the quality is high – that the translation uses the best possible equivalents for the target audience to faithfully convey the intended message.

  • CT3 is used primarily for short pieces of information. Phrases such as "update my status," or "add as a connection" are typical examples of phrases that CT3 is well-suited to, because users can "vote" in real-time on which translation they like best. Thus, rather than resort to the typical translation process, in which a single person (editor) has the ability to veto or alter the translation, this gives more people the opportunity to weigh in and participate, giving them a say in what the final translation will be.
Common Sense Advisory clarified this issue previously when we dispelled the myth of CT3 as a means of "getting something for nothing":

"When casual observers comment about how getting the users to translate sounds like good business, they are alluding to the bit about it being wink-wink-nudge-nudge 'free.' Actually, it costs money to manage work, whether your workers are volunteer or paid. Not to mention, in Facebook's case, investment in building a collaborative translation capability into the product itself. Free was not the point. Time was. Translations started appearing in days, rather than in the months it otherwise would have taken a vendor to manage, test, and deliver a localized user interface of more than 100,000 words."

Our research shows that the companies that engage in CT3 do actually care about translators and view them as professionals. In fact, they often employ full-time translators in-house, and they typically also contract with language service providers (LSPs) to perform translations that lend themselves more to the "traditional" translate-edit-proof (TEP) process, such as texts of a legal nature, privacy policies, marketing collateral, and corporate communications. CT3 is usually reserved for the short phrases that are highly unique to a given community - and are usually an important part of its online flavor and culture.
  • The take-away for freelancers is clear: CT3 is not a threat to the profession. It is simply another method of working in the digital age. Just like computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools were once seen as a threat by freelancers who had no familiarity with them, CT3 looks and sounds menacing at first to those who have not engaged it in before. In reality, the practice generates more work for freelancers -- not just for translation of traditional projects, but post-editing and proofreading of CT3 content -- because it opens up new multilingual markets that companies might not otherwise enter.
  • The lesson for organizations that want to tap into the professional translator pool is two-fold: First, keep in mind that most organizations have recruited for their CT3 efforts from bilinguals in their own web communities – not within the professional freelance translator community itself. Second, to achieve success, any attempt to target language professionals must take into account the lack of prior experience with CT3 among this pool, and the general distrust of efforts to get work done for free.
Ultimately, the CT3 efforts that exist serve an important purpose -- to give more people greater access to information. Whether the goal is to receive information (as with TED's scientific talks) or to share it (as in the "Twitter Revolution" in Iran), social media platforms are changing the way people communicate across borders of countries, cultures, and languages. In other words, CT3 isn't going away anytime soon.


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