Crowdsourcing: the Secret to a Motley Translation

While crowdsourcing may seem like a conveniently cheap approach to translation, it is symptomatic of a misconception of translation as an exact science and generates a text as variegated as the crowd that produces it.

Crowdsourcing typical involves a team of amateurs, i.e. individuals with no credentials, experience or training, who happen to be native speakers of another language, believing that they understand the source language well enough and that that is all it takes to translate. (Being a native speaker does not guarantee writing skills: do all English speakers know how to use apostrophes, hyphens and punctuation, for instance?) Then each translator works on a few paragraphs in isolation with no context to guide them (a crucial aspect of the work of translation), leaving the door wide open to misunderstanding. Along with the disparity of linguistic abilities and knowledge of the topic (with no context to determine what that is in the first place), this can only result in a patchwork of interpretations, styles, terminology, spelling (e.g. -ise/-ize) and other inconsistencies guaranteed to confuse the reader. Furthermore, crowdsourcing smacks of exploitation since those doing the work are rarely paid. In this age of increasing sensitivity to ethical values, it is a dangerous card to play.

Some argue that crowdsourcing can be useful to test the water and check whether there is an audience in certain languages prior to investing in professional translation. While this may work in some cases, there is still a high risk of making a poor first impression that could prove an impediment to building a strong trustworthy image later.

It cannot even be argued that crowdsourcing saves time if we consider the time it takes to recruit a large team, brief the participants on the process, split the text, allocate each small chunk, deal with all sorts of queries and finally rearrange the various bits. The time saved by having several people working at the same time is spent on complex and unnecessary administrative tasks.

If approximate and inconsistent translation is good enough for you – and if you get a kick out of futile admin work, crowdsourcing may fit your purpose. On the other hand, professional standards are better achieved by working with professionals.

crowdsourcing cartoonCartoon: Rob Cottingham, www.socialsignal.com

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