Workspaces:3. Intermediaries changing environment/Social Translation

Translating the social: a new space for news

Chris Salzberg, researcher, independent science writer

Not long ago, the question of where people get their daily supply of news about the world was a relatively easy one to answer. News came to us in a handful of media formats such as print, radio and television, delivered by familiar faces like the international news anchor and the foreign correspondent. Behind these faces, the recipient imagined a person at a desk sifting through reports from around the world, selecting the ones people need to know. In this picture, international news speaks to us in a language we understand, using reference points we recognize. It wants us to listen, but doesn't expect us to talk back.

The demand side of the international news equation is also familiar enough in this picture. It's all of us. More precisely, it's all of us, divided into convenient regional units like countries and cities. Americans watch CNN and FOX. British watch the BBC. Japanese watch NHK. National interest groups subdivide the same way: Brazilian soccer fans watch their local sports channel for coverage of the World Cup, just as Dutch fans watch theirs for coverage of the same event.

What has happened over the past decade to this picture of supply and demand can be illustrated by contrasting it with a simple thought exercise. Imagine for a moment that you were to put a large random sample of people from across the world in a room together, and then ask them to have a conversation. Logistics aside, it is easy to see what would happen. People would first seek out others who speak their language, or who at least share a language in common. This gives us what I will call linguistic spheres, or "lingospheres". The next step would be to find something to talk about, at which point networks of common interest would begin to form. This gives us social spheres, which can develop into communities.

The spheres in this thought exercise - the social and the linguistic- intersect today in the social media landscape of Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia. Quite apart from the influence of the mass media, people in this space seek out others with common interests, in groups which broadly cluster along linguistic lines. How international news relates to this new setting is a question that members of Global Voices, a non-profit citizen media project founded at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, spend a lot of time thinking about.

As an organization founded on the idea of bridging global conversations, Global Voices sits in an unusual place between the two pictures of global communication sketched above. In the traditional supply and demand picture, it is a website providing international journalists - the suppliers of news flow- with a sample of "word on the street" accounts from people across the world, as expressed in social media. In the conversation picture, it is the host at the international gathering, coaxing individuals from different places and backgrounds to come together and share views on topics of global significance.

When I joined Global Voices as one of two Japanese language editors in early 2007, the organization vaguely resembled a traditional newsroom, except there was no physical room. It had a group of paid editors assigned to different regions of the world, overseeing a much larger community made up of hundreds of volunteer contributors. Together, these groups tackled the challenge of turning social media chatter in dozens of different languages into cohesive storylines.

The result of this experiment is something that I can only describe as raw. Nowhere is this more evident than in articles that bridge the barriers of language through translation. Reading the personal accounts of bankrupt Chinese ant farmers protesting in Shenyang, or of Serbian bloggers discussing the politics of Russian war operations in South Ossetia, is bound to test the limits of even the most worldly audience. For one thing, it demands a great deal of background knowledge that your average foreign reader does not typically possess. It also requires a considerable amount of patience.

The challenges inherent in this inward form of translation, from conversations in other languages into English, are compounded by the increasingly prominent role played by outward translation in the project's daily operations.1 From a group originally made up of bloggers and journalists writing exclusively in English, Global Voices has evolved into a multilingual website speaking more than twenty languages. The group of dedicated volunteer translators that make this transformation possible, referred to collectively as Lingua, number today over one hundred, roughly half of all contributors to the project.

The influx of translators has highlighted significant practical challenges in the translation of social media, some of which I have discussed elsewhere.2,3 It has also brought out sensitive issues of identity at the heart of the new global media reality, foremost among them the ambiguity of the translator's position there. Invisible in the institutional machinery of the global news agency,4 the translator of social media now finds themselves at the bottleneck of news flow between lingospheres in the global conversation space. Unlike the journalist, however, the translator does not have hundreds of years of history to guide them in this new role.

Despite this handicap, many have leapt at the opportunity. Two examples from China stand out as illustrating the potential of the individual and of the community, respectively. Roland Soong, a Hong Kong-based media researcher, draws upwards of 8000 visitors every day to his site EastSouthWestNorth (ESWN), where he posts daily translations of Chinese-language articles, blog posts and forum commentary.5 Soong has described himself as a "one man pressure group trying to get a more balanced coverage of China so that it reflects more of what the Chinese people are seeing and reading".6 A 39-year-old insurance broker named Shi Yi, meanwhile, heads a group of 240 passionate fans of the British news weekly The Economist, who translate the entire magazine every week into Chinese.7 The group claims to have more than 60,000 registered users at its website.8

These two examples only scratch the surface of what is possible in the new zones emerging along the boundaries of traditional language-bound news markets. When one broadens the scope and considers content supply in more general terms, a host of other translation communities enter the picture. Complex networks of anime fans, for example, translate subtitles from Japanese into dozens of different languages, cutting into territory traditionally occupied by professionals in the field.9Harry Potter fans do the same when they post translations of their favorite books online only days after the release of the English-language originals.10 Social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, have capitalized on the potential of such community translation by recruiting teams of volunteers to localize their platforms.11

The information translated in these cases -subtitles, books, localization strings-ì is not what we would normally associate with international news. Yet as with other social media settings, the type of content transmitted is less important than the network via which that content is transmitted. If it is points of common interest that connect conversations in social media, then it is at these points that news will flow. As the mediator for such transmission, translation takes on a unique role in this context, not only in influencing the flow, but in transforming the very meaning of "global news" itself- and with it, our perception of the world beyond the frontiers of language.


1 For more background on the role of translation in Global Voices, see: Ethan Zuckerman, Language and translation on Global Voices. My heart's in Accra. December 16, 2006. (

2 Chris Salzberg. Translation and participatory media: Experiences from Global Voices, Translation Journal. July, 2008. (

3 Ethan Zuckerman. Chris Salzberg on Global Voices, and the challenges and potential of community translation. My heart's in Accra. December 18, 2008. (

4 Esperanca Bielsa and Susan Bassnett, Translation in Global News. Routledge, 2008.

5 Roland Soong, Individual Blogging for Social Transformation. The Fourth Chinese Internet Research Conference: China's Internet and Chinese Culture. July 21-22, 2006. (

6 Quoted in: Alan Knight, Cherian George, and Alex Gerlis, Who is a journalist? Journalism Studies 9(1), February 2008.

7 Evan Osnos, Found in translation: Letter from China. The New Yorker. March 2, 2009. (

8 Lara Farrar, Found in translation: China's volunteer online army. June 16, 2009. (

9 Jorge Diaz Cintas and Pablo Munoz Sanchez, Fansubs: Audiovisual Translation in an Amateur Environment. The Journal of Specialised Translation. July, 2006. (

10 This has happened in at least three different countries that I know of: China, Germany and France. For China, see: Roland Soong, Self-organised citizen translations of Harry Potter 7. EastSouthWestNorth. July 28, 2007. ( For Germany, see: Krysia Diver, Germans in a hurry for Harry. The Guardian Unlimited. August 1, 2005. ( For France, see: Kim Willsher, Harry Potter and the boy wizard translator. The Guardian Unlimited. August 8, 2007. (

11 Tomoko A. Hosaka, Facebook asks users to translate for free. Associated Press. April 18, 2008. (

Author Bio

Chris Salzberg is a Japanese-English translator, writer, and researcher living in Tokyo, Japan. He has studied physics, mathematics and computer science, but ultimately found translation studies to be a more challenging field, and set up shop there. Between 2007 and 2009 he was Japanese Language Editor for Global Voices Online, and continues to be involved in the project at a research level. By day he is today a science writer, by night he contemplates the future of social translation and its relation to the changing landscape of global media.