As a native of Germany and non-native English speaker, I have often been frustrated by poorly localised software and applications. Of course, getting the intricacies of a language right is a complicated endeavour with synonyms, idioms and fixed expressions making the process of translation more difficult than just looking up a list of terms in a dictionary.
To complicate things further, translating software not only requires translation experts but also subject matter experts to avoid producing text that is grammatically correct yet does not match a given context (see here if you want to find some examples where the translator did not get it right).
Last week I had the chance to hear F. Scott Woods of Facebook speak at a German Online Marketing Talk organised by Big Mouth Media. He provided a clever Web 2.0 style approach to this problem by harnessing the wisdom of the crowds and essentially recruiting users who are both subject matter experts and native speakers to do the translation work for free - a practice known as ‘crowdsourcing’.
After the talk I was digging a little deeper into the topic to find out how they really do it. After logging in to Facebook, I found that every user can access the translation application at http://www.facebook.com/translations/. From there, users can translate new sentences or vote on previously translated sentences so that the best solution rises to the top of the screen. The German translation service currently has 236 active translators who have translated 108,817 sentences (as of the end of March 2010).
Facebook claims they are able to translate text in any given language within an impressive 24 hour timeframe. They cleverly managed to unleash the power of their users by providing a simple-to-use application that distributes the load evenly between volunteers. Facebook already took its translation service to the next level by opening up their translation workforce to external websites.
This application is another example of the growing trend of outsourcing small independent tasks to an external crowd of users.
Blog post by Markus Heckner, Accenture Information Management Services