Ideas worth spreading require many languages

TED, purveyors of mindblowing talks by some of the world's most visionary thinkers (and most engaging speakers), made a big announcement today: they've launched their Open Translation Project, which currently provides subtitles for TED talks in 40 languages.

Translating content is not revolutionary in and of itself -- although as someone who has worked on multi-language websites, I can tell you that successful translation efforts require a truly mind-boggling amount of careful planning and even more careful execution -- but TED has done something very interesting here, that's worth a closer look for anyone providing rich content and hoping to reach a broad audience.

The translations are made possible through the efforts of volunteer translators. Here's how TED is handling quality control:

Rather than simply translate a few talks into a handful of major languages, TED and technology partner, dotSUB developed a set of tools that allow participants around the world to translate their favorite talks into their own language. This approach is scalable, and -- importantly -- allows speakers of less-dominant languages an equal opportunity to spread ideas within their communities.

To seed the site, a handful of talks were professionally translated into 20 languages. But all translations going forward will be provided by volunteers. At launch, volunteer translators had already contributed more than 200 published translations (with 450 more in development). These volunteers range from well-organized groups working together in their own language, to lone translators working individually and matched by TED with others.

To help ensure quality, we generate an approved, professional English transcript for each talk. (This is the transcript upon which all translations are based.) Once the talk is translated, we then require every translation to be reviewed by a second fluent speaker before publishing it on TED. TED controls the final "publish" button. All translators and reviewers are credited by name for their work. After publication, we provide feedback mechanisms for ongoing discussion or improvement around the translation.

I find that second-to-last sentence noteworthy, as well: "All translators and reviewers are credited by name for their work." I watched a sweet little emoticon story that was translated by a fellow named Clement Genzmer, whose profile page lists the three talks he has translated, as well as talks for which he has reviewed the translation. (Importantly, the links to those talks also credit a co-translator/translation reviewer.)

Not only does TED provide subtitles for each talk, but they have also developed interactive transcripts that enhance the TED experience from all kinds of perspectives:

Along with subtitles, every talk on now features a time-coded, interactive transcript, which allows users to select any phrase and have the video play from that point. The transcripts are fully indexable by search engines, exposing previously inaccessible content within the talks themselves. For example, searching on Google for "green roof" will ultimately help you find the moment in architect William McDonough's talk when he discusses Ford's River Rouge plant, and also the moment in Majora Carter's talk when she speaks of her green roof project in the South Bronx. Transcripts will index in all available languages.

I can see these transcripts being of enormous benefit to visually impaired users (although the transcripts do not, to my knowledge, include descriptions of visual elements such as slides shown during the presentations, which is an obvious limitation), as well as people watching videos more than once, who may want to skip directly to a particular point in a video.

I'm incredibly impressed with TED's efforts to make their content more accessible to people everywhere, and with the methodology they've used. I do see one oversight, however, which is that I would love to see them include sign-language interpretation, to allow deaf people a richer TED experience. Perhaps once they've seen some success with written translations they will explore the idea of offering picture-in-picture sign language interpretation -- this, too, could be volunteer contributed.