21 Apr 2016

Crowdsourcing Translation Projects: Can It Ever Be Effective?

A number of high profile companies have chosen a crowdsourced approach to translating their content. But is crowdsourcing a good choice for global brands or retailers?

Crowdsourcing translation is usually enabled by the internet, using dedicated translation platforms to enlist the services of a number of people to do the work. It’s an extremely risky approach to a translation project, and one that carries a high likelihood of delivering low quality, inaccurate content in an inconsistent manner.

Brands that choose a crowdsourced approach to getting their material translated have to be prepared to assume this risk and quality compromise. In most cases they do this because the risk is balanced with benefits such as speed and low cost. Brands that take a crowdsourced approach rarely do so with critical brand content but choose this approach for less significant material.

Crowdsourcing translation work is not an approach that will work for every type of organization.

For some projects, and for some types of content, it’s sometimes considered acceptable or even necessary to compromise on quality in order to make a project feasible. Generally, it’s best for projects that would otherwise be unachievable because of the sheer volume of materials that need translation.

This is often the case with projects where much of the customer or user support is done by peers via forums, meaning there’s a large amount of content and much of it is obscure and disparate. For Facebook, the decision to experiment with a crowdsourced approach to translation was probably because the platform has ambitions to translate into a huge number of languages and needed to do so quickly and cheaply.

One of the key disadvantages of crowdsourced translation work is the huge differences in the abilities and professionalism of would-be translators. Because crowdsourced projects are often large ones, a large number of translators are required to work on the project, making it hard to achieve a high level of quality control over those contributing.

Most people understand crowdsourced projects are done on a voluntary basis but this isn’t always the case. Crowdsourcing can also just mean that a large number of low-paid translators contribute to the project. Some crowdsourced platforms do enable some level of quality control, such as a review and editing process. Because crowdsourced translation projects tend to be large, it’s hard to achieve the same level of consistency and quality when compared to selecting the right team of professionals to lead your translation project.

High-profile crowdsourced translation projects

Facebook raised some eyebrows when it decided to crowdsource the translation of its platform content into other languages. Surprisingly, the world’s most popular social networking platform didn’t offer any localized versions of its platform as late as 2008. The crowdsourced project happened astonishingly quickly; enabling Facebook to unveil a Spanish version of its site only a few weeks after the translation project began. Facebook considered crowdsourcing the project to be the quickest and most cost effective way to get the service translated into a multitude of languages.

Open source projects such as the operating systems GNOME and Fedora have also gone with a crowdsourced model when it came to translating their content to new languages.

This approach to adapting the language of the content is very consistent with the ethos of the open source movement, where a passionate community of believers contribute their time benevolently to the project. It’s also the case that these open source platforms tend to be free to use, so end users have less expectation of quality compared to if they were using a paid project or service.

The disadvantages of crowdsourcing translation

Crowdsourcing is perhaps best for translation projects that don’t demand perfection or consistency in terms of tone of voice. This includes projects such as wiki sites, community based platforms run by members such as fan sites, blogs and news portals, gaming forums and other places where users help each other out of community spirit and benevolence. It’s less successful for projects where the copy being translated is intended to encourage the reader towards a particular goal, such as buying a product, or when accuracy is important.

It’s also less successful at achieving brand impact because the brand’s own voice isn’t distinguished. Crowdsourcing isn’t an approach that’s supportive of your brand as it takes the tone of voice outside of your control. More worryingly, it’s difficult to achieve quality control unless you have your own translation team able to double check any copy translated in this manner. It’s important that you don’t get into difficulties with customers because of poor quality translated material that they rely on for things such as product descriptions or instructions. What’s particularly concerning is that the end user will assume the content is within your control and hold your brand at fault for any errors or inconsistencies.

If you do decide that some parts of your content can be crowd translated, it’s best to set limitations on the type of content that is translated in this manner.

Any content that’s a major part of how your brand speaks to customers needs to be translated within the full sphere of your control. This includes marketing materials, product or service descriptions, and any legal or technical copy such as terms and conditions or instructions.

Crowdsourced translation projects work best when there’s a passionate community of advocates who are motivated to work on the project because they genuinely want to help other users. Not many businesses are able to generate that kind of community loyalty and dedication, which is why it’s so rare that crowdsourced projects really work well. For most brands and retailers, where the purpose of the content is to attract, engage and entertain potential customers, the lack of control over the quality and consistency of messaging makes crowdsourcing a high-risk option.


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