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Translation crowdsourcing: What motivates people to translate for free?

By Marian Flanagan, Aarhus University, Denmark

Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon that describes the outsourcing of jobs to a large, undefined crowd, first coined in 2006 by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine. Thanks to advances in technology and the arrival of Web 2.0, the social, interactive web, many crowdsourcing initiatives take place online, allowing companies to tap into the skills and expertise of large, virtual crowds. As defined by Minako O’Hagan in 2011, translation crowdsourcing is a translation model that reaches out to a large virtual crowd on the Internet to obtain translations. While some translation crowdsourcing projects remunerate their participants, the focus of this article will be on project participants who translate for free. Why do they participate and what motivates them?

Translation Crowdsourcing: For-Profit vs. Non-Profit

Translation crowdsourcing initiatives can be divided into two groups: those conducted by for-profit companies and those conducted by non-profit organizations. Within these two groups, translations are carried out without any compensation or remuneration by both professional and non-professional translators. However, the majority of professional translators only contribute to projects organized by non-profit organizations. The reasons for this are the notion of translator ethics and the idea that translators should be treated as professionals and so they should not offer their services for free to a for-profit company. Some non-profit organizations only allow professional translators to participate (e.g. Translators Without Borders1). It has been suggested, by John Yunker among others, that for-profit companies that have successfully implemented the translation crowdsourcing model have a product (e.g. website or app) that is ‘translation worthy.’ This means that if there are eager individuals who want to translate a product for free, it is a good indication that the product will succeed globally.

What Motivates Participants?

Motivation is defined as “a desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm”2 but, according to Johnmarshall Reeve, it is also a “private, unobservable, and seemingly mysterious experience.” This means that it is never a straightforward process to judge an individual’s motivation to participate. In a study on why software developers were motivated to volunteer for Free Open-Source Software (FOSS) projects, in 2005, Professor Karim R. Lakhani of Harvard University, and Robert G. Wolf of the Boston Consulting Group, devised two motivation categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when a person does something for enjoyment or due to a sense of obligation, while extrinsic motivation is when a person does something for a direct or indirect reward. The studies that have been conducted to date to investigate participants’ motivation to translate for free revealed both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.


In 2012, Julie McDonough Dolmaya, an Assistant Professor at York University’s Glendon College, reported on responses to a questionnaire answered by professional and non-professional translators mainly in response to why they translate Wikipedia pages for free. In relation to translating for non-profit organizations, many of the responses were similar. The predominant intrinsic motivations were to make information available to speakers of other languages, to help support the organization behind the crowdsourcing initiative, and to translate material that they found intellectually stimulating. Extrinsic motivations included enhancing one’s reputation as a translator and gaining more translation experience. In response to other translation crowdsourcing initiatives, both professional and non-professional translators raised concerns about for-profit companies using volunteers to do their translation work. However, of all the people who responded to the questionnaire, 25% of them had translated for for-profit crowdsourcing initiatives, indicating that they did not object to this practice by for-profit companies. Some professional translators were vocal about their reluctance to translate for for-profit initiatives. Their reasons for this included not wanting their work associated with a large for-profit crowdsourcing project, as they assumed that the quality would be low, and not wanting to work for free for companies that make large annual profits.

The Rosetta Foundation

In their 2010 study, Dublin City University Professor Sharon O’Brien, and Reinhard Schäler, of the The Rosetta Foundation (TRF)3, identified similar motivations when the focus was on that non-profit Foundation. The two most dominant motives of the volunteer translators were to support the non-profit cause (intrinsic) and to gain professional translation experience (extrinsic).Volunteers were motivated by both social and personal factors.

Facebook and Skype

Talinn University’s Marit Mesipuu’s 2010 MA thesis looked at the translation crowdsourcing models employed by Facebook and Skype and the motivations of the crowds who participated. Her findings for the Facebook initiative, from an Estonian perspective, indicated extrinsic motivations, including the participants’ desire to realize their potential as translators and to develop their linguistic skills (translating from English to Estonian). Furthermore, they wanted to promote the Estonian language and to give others the opportunity to use the Facebook platform in their own language (intrinsic). The participants in the Skype initiative wanted to contribute to the look and feel of the Skype environment and to have the opportunity to meet like-minded people from across the world (extrinsic). For those participants, the sense of belonging to an exclusive, like-minded community motivated them to continue translating for free. For her 2014 Ph.D. thesis, Magdalena Dombek, of Dublin City University, also conducted a study into participants in the Facebook translation crowdsourcing initiative, but from a Polish perspective. This study identified intrinsic motivations that included helping others who did not understand English to be a part of Facebook, and promoting the Polish language globally. Furthermore, many participants were motivated to participate because they found the translation project a fun activity and a way to fight boredom. Extrinsic motivations included practising and developing their translation and English language skills.

TED – Ideas Worth Spreading

In two different studies, Maeve Olohan, of the University of Manchester, and Lidia Cámara de la Fuente, of the University of Cologne, focused on participants’ motivations for taking part in the TED Open Translation Project.4 This project looks for volunteers to subtitle talks provided in video format from English into other languages. Olohan used a qualitative approach, using published interviews from 11 volunteers on the TED website. From the small data set, the motivation of sharing knowledge, ideas or information (intrinsic) was the most prevalent motive identified, followed by the enjoyment involved in translating. Other motives identified were extrinsic, including effecting social change through their contributions to TED; “feeling a warm glow” knowing that their translations had helped others; feeling proud of their contributions to the project; wanting to be part of a community or movement, and enhancing their own learning but not necessarily translation skills. Camara’s study presented the findings of 177 surveys completed by volunteer translators. The intrinsic motivations identified from these data included participants’ ability to identify with the aims of the project and to help spread knowledge. Other motivations related to learning, in particular, to gain translation experience and to learn about the content of the TED talks (extrinsic). These findings are in line with those of Olohan, and with the other translation crowdsourcing studies in general.

People contribute to translation crowdsourcing initiatives for several reasons, making it unrealistic to try to determine one particular motive behind volunteering to translate for free. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Ram A. Cnaan and Robin S. Goldberg-Glen, the motivations are also both intrinsic and extrinsic. In other words, the crowd behaves altruistically and egoistically simultaneously. The main motivations identified from the studies they present are making information available in other languages, supporting the organization behind the translation crowdsourcing initiative, translating material that is deemed intellectually stimulating, and wanting to belong to a group or community.

Material Incentives

Some of the studies mentioned above discuss the specific incentives that some translation crowdsourcing initiatives offer the crowd. Facebook’s crowd is an open community, meaning anybody who would like to contribute to the project signs up and is then part of the crowd. Facebook offers their crowd two incentives: a leaderboard, where the most active translators are listed, along with the chance to add a badge to a member’s profile to highlight their contributions to the translation of the Facebook platform. Dombek noted in her study that while volunteers’ efforts are recorded on these leaderboards, only the members of the community can see the efforts of each individual. In Dombek’s survey data, the volunteers said they would be more interested in receiving feedback and recognition from the people behind the Facebook translation crowdsourcing initiative. As Mesipuu found out, Skype organizes their translation crowdsourcing initiative as a closed community, meaning that Skype limits membership in the group and selects the crowd translators carefully. Incentives offered by Skype include publishing the names of the translators in the official release notes, organizing a community event once a year for the volunteer translators, giving material incentives to the translators (e.g. T-shirts and bags with the Skype logo), and providing free Skype credit.

O’Brien & Schäler asked the TRF participants to indicate the kinds of incentives they would appreciate in return for their translation work. The majority of volunteers (86%) were professional translators. The main incentives included general feedback from Rosetta Foundation clients and feedback from professional translators. Interestingly, ‘payment’ and ‘leaderboards’ were ranked low among the incentives suggested. This finding indicates that the volunteers in this non-profit context were more interested in supporting the cause and in improving their translation skills than in being rewarded financially or given virtual praise.

Is translation crowdsourcing the translation model for the future?

In Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, outlined why crowdsourcing is not one simple strategy. Rather, it is an overall term for several different approaches to a business process. A translation crowdsourcing model is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the translation needs of a company. If a company is considering translation crowdsourcing, a number of factors need to be considered, community being the most important, since without a crowd there is no crowdsourcing. Therefore, engaging in community building via website localization and social networking is a good place to start. Websites of companies that naturally have a high degree of user involvement, for example social networking sites, seem to be at an advantage in this respect. Other factors include possible incentives or rewards for the crowd and dividing the task up to allow mass collaboration.

Final Thoughts

The motivation to volunteer in translation projects is based on a variety of reasons. Some volunteers want to ensure that information is available to those who need it most; some want to be part of a close-knit translation community; some consider it a fun activity to do in their free time. While the discourse from professional translators surrounding translation crowdsourcing often indicates a mistrust of for-profit companies that engage in this business model, the non-professional translators who volunteer for the projects seem to view the activity differently. This difference of opinion might be a result of the digital, connected world in which we now live, where collaborating, contributing and being part of a community are promoted, irrespective of a company’s aims. The translation crowdsourcing model is thus here to stay for the foreseeable future and will most likely continue to co-exist with other more traditional translation business models.


Cámara de la Fuente, Lidia (2015). “Motivation for collaboration in TED Open Translation,” International Journal of Web-based Communication 11(2): 210-229.

Cnaan, Ram A. & Robin Goldberg-Glen (1991). “Measuring motivation to volunteer in human services.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 27(3): 269-284.

Dombek, Magdalena (2014). A study into the motivations of Internet users contributing to translation crowdsourcing: the case of polish Facebook user-translators. Ph.D. thesis. Dublin City University.

Flanagan, Marian (2016). “Cause for concern? Attitudes towards translation crowdsourcing in professional translators’ blogs.” Journal of Specialised Translation 25: 149-173.

Jiménez-Crespo, Miguel A. (2016). “Translation crowdsourcing: research trends and perspectives” in Cordingley, Anthony & Frigau Manning, Céline (2017). Collaborative Translation From the Renaissance to the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury Aademic.

Howe, Jeff (2006). “The rise of crowdsourcing.” Wired 14.06.

Howe, Jeff (2008). Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. New York: Penguin Random House.

Lakhani, Karim R. & G. Robert Wolf (2005). “Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects,” in Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam and Karim R. Lakhani (eds.) Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 3-22.

McDonough Dolmaya, Julie (2012). “Analyzing the crowdsourcing model and its impact on public perceptions of translation.” The Translator 18(2):167-191.

Mesipuu, Marit (2010). Translation Crowdsourcing: an insight into hows and whys (at the example of Facebook and Skype). MA Thesis. Tallinn University.

O’Brien, Sharon & Reinhard Schäler (2010). Next generation translation and localization:users are taking charge. Accessed 27 December 2017.

O’Hagan, Minako (2011). “Introduction: community translation: translation as a social activity and its possible consequences in the advent of Web 2.0 and beyond.” O’Hagan, Minako (ed.) (2011). Translation as a social activity. A special issue of Linguistica Antverpiensia 10, 11-23.

Olohan, Maeve (2014). “Why do you translate? Motivation to volunteer and TED translation.” Translation Studies 7(1): 17-33.

Reeve, Johnmarshall. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Yunker, John (2014). “Make your product “translation worthy,” and the world will follow,” [online]

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Marian Flanagan is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University, Denmark.

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