Crowd-Sourcing Translations of TED's Lectures

Go to, the popular home of 18-minute lectures on mind-bending topics, and you'll see this slogan: "Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world." Riveting, sure. Remarkable, definitely. But is that last part really true when the lectures are available only in English, a language not spoken by 75 percent of the globe?

To address the problem and expand its reach, the organization has initiated the TED Open Translation Project, an ambitious and experimental effort to translate as many of its videos into as many languages as possible, using a crowd-sourced army of untrained linguists.

How it works: TED has prepared official English transcripts for each of the 400-plus videos in its library. From there, amateurs around the world are invited to bring the text into their own tongues. Quality controls—two fluent speakers must agree on each new text, and TED has final publishing authority—aim to keep each speaker's ideas intact across language and cultural barriers. Some work has already begun, so the project is launching with 300 translations in 40 languages, from French to Finnish, Korean to Kannada.

The end result is triply cool: viewers at can hear, say, Hans Rosling present poverty statistics in English, while viewing subtitles in Farsi and scrolling through a clickable transcript in Italian. June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, calls it a "Rosetta Stone effect." She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Nick Summers about the complexities of global collaboration and ensuring elaborate ideas aren't lost in translation. Excerpts:

SUMMERS: When did you first realize a need for translation at TED, and how did you arrive at the crowd-sourcing approach?
COHEN: Ever since we first launched the series, we've been getting requests from people who not just wanted to share the talks, but who wanted to translate for us. "I just translated Ken Robinson's talk into Polish; do you want it? I want to be able to share this." We didn't really know what to do with them. What we needed was an infrastructure for bringing subtitles and translation to the site.

So volunteers were always part of it. But initially, we focused on professionals, because of course we take what we do seriously, and we think it's really important that our speakers' words be faithfully translated. And over the course of the project, we flip-flopped on that, and went from emphasizing professionals … to a project that emphasizes volunteer translation, and is seeded with a few professionally translated talks.

What kinds of things have you discovered so far?
All of the reasons that we emphasized volunteer translation have been panning out. They're collaborating with each other, spotting errors, even finding flaws in our professional translations—which was a real turnaround from where we thought we'd be at the beginning.

Tens of millions of people speak Tamil [an Indian language], but we're just never exposed to it in the U.S. Even Hausa, or Pashto, have 20 or 30 million speakers, but it's very, very hard to find professional translators. So there's a kind of magical aspect of the site, the magic of language.

What do you hope will happen, broadly speaking, once the translations begin to accumulate?
So far, we've begun to open up a global conversation on what we think are some of the most interesting ideas of our day, but that conversation is happening only in English. And you can't have a global conversation if you're not speaking to 75 percent of the world's population. So our hope, on several levels, is that the inspired ideas within the TED Talks can spread throughout the world and inspire people. But the ultimate effect this has on people is unpredictable.

Are there similar efforts out there that you were able to draw from?
There were only a couple of leading projects from which we could draw best practices. This project is still fairly rare. One is Wikipedia, which deals with text content. Another is Mozilla, which does crowd-sourced translations for the Firefox browser.

We're completely different in terms of the mechanics of translation. We have video subtitles, and they have words in a command box or menu. But they have lots of interesting ideas about how to coordinate among communities, how to motivate, how much control to exert, how much freedom to give.

How are your translators going to approach idioms?
We have style guidelines that we wrote up ahead of time, to help them navigate the difficult decisions they'll face. For strange idioms, we ask them not to translate word for word—that'd be meaningless. Is there a similar idiom in the language they're translating to? If not, try to translate in the clearest way possible.

The most important thing is to capture their meaning, but also their tone and style and humor. TED Talks are many things, but they're informational at their core. They're also inspired, they're also humorous, they're also poetic, but they are at their essence conveying information.

What are some of the challenges that you foresee?
It's tricky; TED Talks are very personality-driven. They're not simple, even for professional translators. They cover so many topics, everything from physics to philanthropy. And each of the speakers is at the edge of their field, and at the edge of their language, very modern. It's sometimes based on jargon, but always focused on forward-looking concepts.

The good news is that volunteers tend to translate the talks that they loved, that moved them, that they get passionate about, so they're willing to research them and get it right.