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Update: The Internet-Based Language Translation Revolution

Please translate: Korea 1945

Photo courtesy Don O'Brien

The internet is the great equalizer.  As long as we have an internet connection and some device to browse it, we can connect with people and organizations, read news and information from around the world whenever we desire.  A large barrier to this interaction, though,  is language.  For example, if we don’t speak or read Mandarin, so much of the world’s online content escapes us.  With a projected 718 million internet users in China by 2013 and Chinese web content mostly user-generated and internally referential (Wikipedia), a huge internet voice is lost to the rest of the world.

Although internet-based language translation applications still have a long way to go, there are some important projects underway, using a combination of applications and volunteer translators,  that are expanding (revolutionizing) the reach of meaningful online information.

Google Translate

Like everyone else at Google, the language translation team doesn’t sit still.  Google is innovating in this space, and there are some exciting new Google translation tools.Google Translate is good enough when you just want to get an idea about what the content is conveying.  Many subtleties of languages trip-up the translator, but well-written articles usually translate well.  To make it extremely easy to use Google Translate, Google even built it into its Chrome Browser.

Google Language Tools

Google’s Language Tools search is a nifty tool that allows you to search content in your language, finds content in other languages, and then translates them into your language for you.

Google Health Information Translation Project

Another Google translation initiative is the volunteer-based Health information translation, the philanthropic arm of Google, is piloting an initiative to have volunteers translate Wikipedia health information from English into three languages, including Arabic, Hindi, and Swahili.

Other interesting translation projects involve video, which is a rapidly growing portion of internet traffic (According to Cisco, Internet video is now over one-third of all consumer Internet traffic, and will approach 40 percent of consumer Internet traffic by the end of 2010).


dotSub is a very handy website for sharing video in multiple languages through text transcripts.  In fact, you can download the transcript and upload it to your YouTube video, too. Universal Subtitles Project

Mozilla’s drumbeat is a crowd-sourcing project portal.  One of the very interesting and audacious goal of subtitling, captioning and translating every video on the web.  The Universal subtitle tool is fairly intuitive and the resulting translation file can be saved for uploading to YouTube.

TED Open Translation Project

The TED Open Translation Project aims to harness an army of global volunteers to translate TEDTalks into as many languages as possible.  TED seeded the translation project by hiring professionals to translate a handful of TEDTalks into twenty languages.  The initiative has grown considerably, and there are now 78 different languages represented by 3,730 translators creating 10,963 translations.  The most translated TEDTalk is Ken Robinson’s ‘Schools Kill Creativity‘, which is translated into 45 languages so far.

Global Voices

The Global Voices project, co-founded by Ethan Zuckerman, is a web-based portal of more than 300 bloggers and translators from around the world who work together to report news not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media.  Currently, Global Voices translates content into more than 15 languages by volunteer translators.


On Flickr, I came across a photo of a page from a Korean book.  The owner had posted it and requested assistance with its translation.  Several people provided detailed information about the translation, providing quite a bit of background, history, and context for the object.  This informal crowdsourced example shows not only that anyone can participate, but that the resulting body of information goes well beyond the straight translation.  A very useful example of informal crowdsourcing!

Translation tools and crowdsourcing initiatives are expanding meaningful formal and informal communications to make our world even flatter.

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