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Crowdsourcing translation

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The advent of the Internet and its rash development in the past few decades have revolutionised our habits and patterns of behaviour. It offers huge opportunities for communication or access to information, but is often blamed for disrupting human relations. We all — and especially young people — spend more and more hours in front of the screen. An increasing number of tasks, which in the past involved direct human contacts, are now performed through a machine — from carrying out banking transactions or buying plane tickets, to playing interactive games with people living thousands of kilometres away, or even donating money for a worthy cause.

However, new forms of communication are emerging thanks to the Web, notably the Web 2.0 — web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing, interaction and collaboration among users and creation of user-generated content, like social networks, blogs, and wikis. Among these applications, crowdsourcing deserves great attention. The term crowdsourcing was created at the end of the 1990s to indicate a new way of getting work done, by involving the ‘crowd’. It is constantly gaining ground and has by now penetrated a wide range of highly diversified areas. And yet, it remains for many an obscure concept. What does crowdsourcing exactly mean and what does it imply, notably in translation where it has lately become a hot topic?

The idea behind crowdsourcing is that ‘the many’ are smarter and make better choices than ‘the few’, and that the ‘crowd’ has a huge potential for which they often find no outlet. There are more and more people who have knowledge and competences but do not have the chance to use them in their professional lives. Now, crowdsourcing offers them the opportunity to pursue their interests at amateur level. And indeed, its growing popularity shows that many are willing to provide their skills, time and energy without expecting any financial compensation in return; the possibility of cultivating their interests and passions, and the appreciation and recognition they get for their work are sufficient rewards.

Secondly, the explosion of content to be processed and tasks to be carried out is not matched by a similar increase in resources, which, on the contrary, seem set to decrease as a result of the current economic crisis. According to its supporters, crowdsourcing is the way out of this impasse because it taps a huge reservoir of skills and competences which would be lost otherwise and, in this way, it helps to match needs and resources. The challenge is how to harness and channel the wisdom of the crowd.

On the other hand, opponents of this evolution warn that not all that glitters is gold and urge not to underestimate the risks inherent in this approach: the risk that businesses exploit free labour to increase their profits, that qualified professionals are deprived of their source of revenue because they cannot stand the competition of the crowd and, last but not least, that quality standards decline when tasks are carried out by unqualified amateurs without any control. Furthermore, worries are voiced about the impact of this new approach on society and our way of living more in general, with boundaries between working and leisure time becoming blurred and crowdsourcers spending too many hours on these activities at the expense of their family or social lives.

This phenomenon has penetrated very diverse fields, ranging from photography to marketing and from science to the non-profit sector — notably citizen journalism and humanitarian projects — and new applications appear all the time. Regardless of the kind of projects it is applied to, however, the characterising features of crowdsourcing tend to be the same: resorting to the crowd to get a work done more rapidly by a large number of people who dispose of the relevant skills and knowledge but would not be reachable otherwise; tapping into a wider reservoir which often helps to come up with more efficient and creative responses; creating a strong bond among all those involved, who perceive themselves as a community sharing interests and objectives and are willing to work collaboratively towards a common goal.

Among the areas affected by this new way of doing things, translation is worth mentioning. Crowdsourcing is radically transforming translation as we have known it up to now. New applications are appearing every day and all those involved in this activity are faced with new challenges in order to adapt to and keep pace with these evolutions.

As happens in other areas, in translation crowdsourcing is raising not only interest and enthusiasm, but also harsh criticism and serious worries, notably about the adverse effects it has on the prospects and status of professional translators. Gloomy scenarios are sketched according to which the very survival of the category would be at stake, while amateurs dump the prices on the market without being able to guarantee high quality standards.

However, crowdsourcing appears to be well established in our society and set to stay.

The changes brought about by this new and highly innovative way of working concern all facets of translation. Crowdsourcing does not affect merely the practice of translation, but has an impact also on the theories of translation and on the way this activity is perceived. In particular, since it involves a large number of people in an activity usually regarded as quite invisible, it may help promote its recognition and visibility, and raise interest about it and about the importance of multilingualism in general. Last but not least, as is happening in other fields where crowdsourcing is taking ground, by transforming the way in which work is performed, it will inevitably affect the professional prospects of translators. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will jeopardise the very survival of this category, as some fear, but obliges translators to face the challenge and take on board the positive aspects of these changes in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their work and of the services they offer to their customers.

Finally, international organisations should not be forgotten. They are often regarded as something apart. Though they work according to specific rules and procedures and to fulfil specific needs, however, they do not exist in isolation. Therefore, they too must confront and come to terms with developments occurring in society at large — and crowdsourcing is one of these. With all caveats, there are certainly lessons a large translation service like the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation can learn from these developments in order to make its workflow more efficient and to better involve its staff, promoting collaboration and stimulating exchanges among translators. And indeed, though — like similar institutions — it tends to be more rigid and to react to changes more cautiously, something is changing at that level too. More collaborative ways of working are now being promoted and voices are being heard inside the European Commission’s translation service spurring it to accept these changes, learn from them and introduce innovative approaches, both to help the staff and convey the EU political message to the public more effectively.

There is, by now, large agreement at all levels — amateurs, non profit, businesses and also institutional organisations — that crowdsourcing is not a transient phenomenon; it is a reality we have to come to terms with. It offers great opportunities but it also entails serious risks and both sides of the same coin must be carefully taken into account without prejudices or easy optimism. In order to promote the practice and status of translation, which plays an essential role for the advancement of society, it is vital to master these developments and steer them for the benefit of the professionals and also of the citizens at large.

© European Union

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