]Site Hopes Automatic Arabic-English Translation Translates into Peace
02-24-2010, 02:51 AM
]Site Hopes Automatic Arabic-English Translation Translates into Peace
Site Hopes Automatic Arabic-English Translation Translates into Peace
* By Ryan Singel Email Author
* February 21, 2010 |
* 10:42 pm |
* Categories: Internet Culture & Etiquette, Internet Diplomacy, People
A new site hopes the seemingly simple idea of eliminating the language barrier, letting you write in English and be read in Arabic — and vice versa — will cultivate citizen diplomacy between the Middle East and the West. It aims to reduce tensions at the grassroots level between two cultures that increasingly co-exist but seem a world apart.
Meedan, which officially launches Monday, lets users post stories and comments in English and have them automatically translated into Arabic, or the opposite. People who don’t share a common language can have an online discussion in near real time. The name, appropriately, means “gathering place” or “town hall” in Arabic.
Think of it as a social network filled with people you don’t know, but want to understand.
“Your typical Facebook user is limited to their social graph, and on Twitter, you have a network of people who mostly share the same interests and think the same way,” said George Weyman, the site’s community manager. “Here you have a chance to run right outside your social graph and see things from a different perspective.”
Take the subject of child marriage in Saudi Arabia, Weyman says. Most Westerners know about that story from Western media stories, which frame the story in a certain way. But the topic is highly controversial inside Saudi Arabia itself. On Meedan, you can see that internal debate translated into English, along with translated stories and blog posts written in Arabic by Saudi Arabians.
The site has been in a public testing mode for 10 months, but now the site’s machine translation — and the volunteers who tweak them — are ready to shed the beta label. So far, the site has seen a half million or so visitors and has served a million pages, but it has yet to become a viral hit.
The site is effectively bilingual, thanks to machine translations, and volunteer editors spruce up the translations afterward. Machine translation is quite good, Weyman says, on fairly standard text such as news stories, but still has difficulties handling comments, which tend to use more conversational language. The site also open-sources all its translation data to help the state of the art of translation to move forward.
Currently, conversations center on so-called “Meedan Events” — news stories or developments in a story that can benefit from conversation or having multiple sources translated into a single stream. While the site plans to open things up more and more, its focus on the Middle East makes it ripe for attracting the worst of the net’s online trolls.
Users can add to these events by commenting or by submitting a link to a related story that might add another perspective. You can also subscribe to various issues so that you are alerted any time there is a new discussion on a topic dear to you. Users can also send each other direct messages, which are machine translated.
The non-profit, which has five full-time employees. is funded with money from a number of large foundations, including the Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller and Cisco foundations. The emphasis on service over profit lets Meedan take seriously its mission to, in the words of founder Ed Bice, “let someone in Nebraska see an event through the eyes of someone in Nablus.”
But mastering the technology of translation may turn out to be easier than actually creating an online discussion forum about the Middle East that respects differences. It’s a goal that every community website, newspaper, mailing list and blog fights, usually unsuccessfully, to achieve.
Weyman says creating a community that respects other cultures and helps people learn from each other is more than possible — he points to the timely case of the Dubai assassination story, where Israeli intelligence agents are accused of using perfect U.K. passports to help pull off an assassination of a top Hamas official.
“What are the Palestinians thinking and what are people saying in Dubai? You see some interesting translations that will give you a very different viewpoints on a particular news story,” Weyman said. “That’s the kind of impact we strive to have.”
Meedan is not the first to make machine translation tools publicly usable — Yahoo’s Babel Fish has been around for years, and Google’s Translate continues to improve and broaden its scope as the company uses its massive trove of search queries to tune its translation technology.
Meedan takes a different tack, first using Machine Translation technology, and then letting translators fix and refine translations. The status of a translation is always apparent, and learning a lesson from Wikipedia, Meedan makes the history of each translation publicly and quickly available.
The point is to not hide the messiness of translation and keep the reminder that this is a cross-cultural endeavor embedded in the site design.
Despite the fact that Meedan is creating free speech zones on the internet in areas where governments routinely censor the internet, Meedan has yet to be blocked by government firewalls. And it hopes to keep it that way.
“We don’t want to be upsetting governments,” Weyman said. “We want to be creating spaces where people can interact and learn about each other.”
Weyman also notes that Meedan’s translation tool fills an interesting gap. Most serious machine-translation research was originally funded by intelligence agencies who wanted to turn non-English-language material into English. Much less effort was spent figuring out how to translate the other way — from English into languages like Arabic. And while English remains the planet’s dominant language — and many Arabic speakers can read some English — there’s still much that remains inaccessible to them and other non-English speakers.
While Meedan was started with foundation money, it will need to find revenue to be self-supporting. Perhaps it can do so by licensing its translation service.
For instance, Meedan partnered with the United States Institute of Peace, which hosted an online webcast with U.S. Ambassador Christoper Hill last Wednesday. The webcast allowed Iraqis and others from the Middle East to ask questions in Arabic, have them translated immediately and get answers back in just seconds.
Weyman’s pitch for adding Meedan to your bookmarks: “Just by spending time on the site, you will learn something you didn’t know before,” Weyman said.
07-17-2010, 05:11 PM
RE: Site Hopes Automatic Arabic-English Translation Translates into Peace
This is a great idea. Thanks for the heads up h3rm35
I go by FatTadpole (10 char username limit) over there so if you see me say هتاف للترحيب !
12 Editors and 107 translators now. They need a little less globalist propaganda sifting through though.
Yahoo’s Babel Fish -- Ah that brings back memories, I worked on the team that did the inaugural design for this before Yahoo bought it. First job I had out of college. My Chilean boss pawned the software program off to Yahoo for a couple million and skipped town without paying any of us. In 10 months, I got one pay cheque and a forged title to some company shares. I learned a lot from the Russians I worked with though, so it was all good.
There are no others, there is only us.
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