Ever try watching Sesame Street in Turkish, or Hindi? Big Bird has made his way to 150 countries, and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Now, PBS NewsHour is working to follow the bird and push some of its newsier content to global audiences. Partnering with the translation platform Amara, the show is crowdsourcing an effort to add subtitles to politics-themed videos, including moments from the U.S. presidential campaigns and short man-on-the-street interviews with American voters.
So, for example, now you can watch a video of President Barack Obama talking about a new immigration policy with subtitles in Vietnamese; or the Ukrainian version of Mitt Romney announcing Paul Ryan as his running mate. (Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles, is also involved in projects to crowdsource captioning for Netflix films and TED talks.) Since January, PBS NewsHour has built up a community of hundreds of dedicated volunteer translators across the world, and videos have been translated into 52 languages.
Because translations are done at the whim of volunteers, the outcome is unpredictable for any given video. As of this writing, for example, Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention was available in English, French, and…Georgian, a language that has millions of speakers but isn’t usually the first that comes up among translation projects in the United States.
Generally, Obama gets more attention from translators than Romney. (It’s understandable that a sitting president would draw more attention than his as-yet-unelected rival.) Some languages are more popular than others. One volunteer in Indonesia is particularly active, which means that many videos have Indonesian subtitles.
“The most frequent languages besides English are Spanish, French, Indonesian, Chinese, and Korean,” Joshua Barajas, a production assistant at PBS NewsHour who handles communications with the volunteer translators, told me. Arabic and Turkish aren’t too far behind.
And what about quality control, a question that comes up in just about any crowdsourced project? It can be particularly difficult — if not downright impossible — to keep tabs on volunteers who are submitting work in a language you don’t understand.
“There has been one incident,” involving a captioner who inserted some foul language, Barajas said. “One troll. We quickly got rid of it. For the most part, it’s been pretty polite.”
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.