April 21, 2008

Users Translate New Versions of Facebook for Free

The popular social networking site Facebook is initiating an aggressive expansion to better serve the 60 percent of its 69 million users who live outside the United States.

Users around the world are translating Facebook's visible framework into nearly two dozen languages, for free.

The company says it's using the wisdom of crowds to produce versions of site guidelines"”especially terms specific to Facebook"”that are in tune with local cultures.

"Our goal would be to hopefully have one day everybody on the planet on Facebook," said Javier Olivan, international manager at Facebook, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Criticism online has surfaced, where some users question whether amateurs can produce good translations. Critics complain of sloppiness and skimping, even as Facebook says it is improving service in an innovative way.

Collaborative translation is familiar in open-source programming communities, but Facebook's effort is among the highest-profile attempts to harness users' energy to do work traditionally handled by professionals. The company is building sites in Japanese, Turkish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and Dutch to join versions in Spanish, French and German that launched this year.

The Spanish-language version of the site has received a lot of criticism for its grammatical, spelling and usage problems.

Ana B. Torres, a 25-year-old professional translator in Madrid, Spain, called the translation "extremely poor," citing "outrageous spelling mistakes" such as "ase" instead of "hace" (for "makes" or "does") and usage of the word "lenguaje" for "language" rather than the correct "idioma."

Some are saying Facebook is just taking advantage of free labor.

Valentin Macias teaches English in Seoul, South Korea, and has volunteered in the past to translate for the nonprofit Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia. But said he won't do it for Facebook.

"(Wikipedia is) an altruistic, charitable, information-sharing, donation-supported cause," Macias said. "Facebook is not. Therefore, people should not be tricked into donating their time and energy to a multimillion-dollar company so that the company can make millions more - at least not without some type of compensation."

Facebook claims it has spent considerable resources building the translation program. Olivan said it's not soaking users but including them in the growth of the network"”and possibly attracting new ones.

"If the goal is to save money, we're doing the wrong thing, because we are basically spending our most valuable asset, which is engineering time," he said.

He added: "Facebook relishes being different from competitors and that users are helping the company produce versions in numerous languages as quickly as possible."

David Jones, vice president of global marketing for Friendster Inc., said just one-fifth of the world's Internet population actively manages profiles on a social network. Friendster has recently shifted its focus to capitalize on its strength in Southeast Asia.

"It's still a bit of a land grab," he said. "So there's plenty of growth to be had in the world, and we're focused on that, and certainly other social networks I'm sure are as well."

Friendster currently has versions in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian, and they just recently launched a beta version in Vietnamese. The company plans to introduce a new language every month or two.

Competing social networking site MySpace is still the industry leader. The News Corp. subsidiary has 200 million registered users worldwide and 29 country-specific and regional sites and more on the way.

MySpace began a global push in early 2006, where its number of visitors worldwide age 15 and older jumped 72 percent to 114.1 million between June 2006 and June 2007, according to Internet research firm comScore Inc.

However, comScore said within the same period Facebook's global traffic surged 270 percent to 52.2 million users, even though it had yet to launch its first foreign-language site.

Travis Katz, international managing director, said as it enters each market, MySpace hires a dedicated team. "Contractors perform the initial translation, which the local MySpace team tweaks to ensure it fits the market," he said.

"The translation in and of itself is not very expensive," Katz said. "The thing that's challenging is getting the cultural aspects right and making sure that the site is culturally relevant and doesn't feel like an invader from Silicon Valley landed."

Jones said Friendster also uses third-party translators.

"As interesting as it might be to get your users to chip in and help out on that, we could do it faster ourselves and very consistently, quite frankly, across the language, across the entire site," Jones said.

Facebook claims over 100,000 users have installed the translation application. Nearly 10,000 helped translate the French, Spanish and German sites"”the Spanish version in less than four weeks and the German one in two weeks.

The process consists of translating a glossary of basic Facebook terms, translating text strings throughout the site, voting on each translation and then "testing and verification."

Murat Odabasi, a software developer and native Turkish speaker, said the volunteer arrangement is good for users as well as Facebook.

"We come up with the words and phrases that will ... eventually become a part of the Turkish language itself," he said in an e-mail in English. "It feels good to be creating something that will in time be seen and used by millions of people."

Renato Beninatto, with the Massachusetts consulting firm Common Sense Advisory, said collaborative translation is an increasingly important tool for businesses. But he said companies may need professional services to finalize translations.

Beninatto, who is also a spokesman for the Globalization & Localization Association, said "The traditional wisdom is that if you have fewer translators, you generate a better product."

"If managed well, however, crowdsourcing can result in a good translation," he said.

Facebook was founded by 23 year-old American entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, while he was still a student at Harvard University. Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room in 2004. The web site now has more than 69 million active users worldwide.


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Common Sense Advisory

Globalization & Localization Association