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Crowdsourcing: The Rise of Amateur Translation

Circuit spoke with Miguel A. Jiménez-Crespo, Director of the Translation and Interpreting program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and author of Crowdsourcing and Online Collaborative Translations: Expanding the Limits of Translation Studies, among many other publications. His deep knowledge of crowdsourcing, as well as his views on the practice, shed light on a still little-known movement.

An interview by Maria Ortiz-Takacs, traductrice agréée/Certified translator

Crowdsourcing has found its way into many fields. From crowdsourcing of ideas and design to crowdsourcing of market research and information, it is clear that this practice is here to stay. Lately, there has been much debate about professional translators being negatively impacted by this trend, which has as many advocates as it has detractors. Both groups raise good points; however, it is important to go deeper into the phenomenon to understand it better.

Circuit: How would you define crowdsourcing?

Miguel A. Jiménez-Crespo: Crowdsourcing is a new phenomenon that involves performing microtasks or chunks of a larger unified project. These tasks are often carried out by volunteers but also by paid participants, either individually or in groups.

C.: In what fields is crowdsourcing mostly used?

M.A.J.C.: The process is heavily used within the areas of audiovisual content and social media. Fans of several genres, like films, comics, anime, etc., take up tasks and process them in different ways. They share hobbies and interests and they have specific motivations to do this kind of job.

C.: How does crowdsourcing apply to translation?

M.A.J.C.: Volunteers and fans get involved in translation for many reasons. Sometimes they are unhappy with the official translations done by motion picture companies or TV stations, as happened in certain countries with the series The Big Bang Theory, where fans considered that the translation was not carefully rendered. Other times they want to share their passion for their hobby and believe no one knows how to convey that message of passion better than a true fan. Also, studios often take a long time to release the subtitled versions of a film, so fans decide to take up the task. This particular form of crowdsourcing is called fansubbing, and specific communities have their own approaches. Manga and anime is one example and TV series and movies are another. In the case of fansubbing, fans want the product right away and they consider access to information more important than a perfectly rendered translation. Communities in China, for instance, usually download films, transcribe the scripts and translate them in chunks. They then distribute the subtitles. Some films have been translated in as little as eight hours.

C.: How is this practice received in the movie industry?

M.A.J.C.: The practice is usually frowned upon by the movie industry because fans are infringing copyright, but in some countries where the companies know they won’t make any money, they use it as publicity. Other times the industry reacts by releasing the subtitled versions faster.

C.: How do you think crowdsourcing can impact the translation industry and the job of professional translators?

M.A.J.C.: In my opinion, from a professional point of view, the practice will bring visibility to translation, as it is clear these people do this work as a hobby. So I believe the impact on the translation industry will be negligible in socio-economic terms. There is room for both professional translators and amateurs because the translation world can only cover 1% of the needs. That’s why I think the effect will not necessarily be negative. Companies that do crowdsourcing offer cheaper translations, but they have acknowledged the need for specialized work. In those cases, crowdsourcing may not apply to high-risk translation tasks. For instance, legal translation will never be done by crowdsourcing. Some crowdsourcing companies don’t even offer legal translation services.

Marian Flanagan, Assistant Professor in the English Department at Aarhus University in Denmark, decided to research translation blogs to determine the opinions of professional translators about crowdsourcing. She learned professionals are not all that worried about this practice, as they know what they can do and so crowdsourcing doesn’t really bother them.

C.: Quality is one of the first casualties that come to mind when we talk about crowdsourcing. How is quality managed in crowdsourcing projects?

M.A.J.C.: Quality is generally managed by means of a unification process. For instance, some companies have language managers, so there are professionals behind the work of amateurs. They also have glossaries and other materials they use to unify the work. It is important to keep in mind that the current fast-moving world is what allows this process to occur, but certain organizations or companies that depend on translation as a professional activity can distinguish between a natural translation, or the cognitive activity that any bilingual person can do, and the professional task of translating. For instance, amateur translators will not be hired by the United Nations, the government, or large private companies, so quality is not an issue in those cases, as non-translators will not even participate in high-risk projects.

C.: What about compensation for people participating in crowdsourcing projects?

M.A.J.C.: The idea behind crowdsourcing is to work on a volunteer basis, that is to say, to work for free. Of course this means there are certain limits to the practice, as there might be some tasks volunteers are not interested in carrying out. The way some companies manage this is by making micro payments to entice people to work when the project is not motivating enough. They use tiers of prices, so there are different rates for different types of translation. Some language combinations are paid more than others because there are fewer people available to do the job. In those cases, companies turn to crowdsourcing to get the number of people they need. Micro payments also allow companies to form communities that are more specialized. Naturally, rates tend to be much lower than those charged by professional translators. Some professionals also take part in crowdsourcing projects. However, when professionals do participate in this kind of project, they’re usually looking for prestige, as is the case with the TED talks Open Translation project.


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