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Team Duolingo -- Translating the Entire Web by Crowdsourcing


Let’s get back to that question: Does team Duolingo have any professional translators on board?

Now, since Duolingo’s stated aim is to by-pass professional translators due to cost and crowdsource translation of the Web, you may be wondering why I’m harping on about professional translators? Well, the Duolingo Project is, after all, a translation project. And, therefore, who better to have on this project advising on important issues other than translation industry experienced professionals?


Translation Crowdsourcing


Here’s a short, yet certainly not exclusive, list of important issues Duolingo will almost certainly run into.


  • Where’s the expert knowledge?
    While the demonstration translation of that earlier news article was accurate, it is after all only a simple news article that anyone with rudimentary language skills and enough time can do fairly accurately. How does Duolingo propose to translate medical, finance, legal or engineering materials etc., all of which require not only excellent language skills but also expert knowledge with years of experience? For example, my Japanese translation services company will only assign medical translations to translators with a medical background (e.g. nurse, medical intern, retired doctor, etc.) with at least 5 years of related translation experience.

    Indeed, any professional translation provider?will have the same strict policy regarding expert knowledge because the consequences of an unqualified translator can be detrimental, literally, to limb and life. This, of course, opens up a whole different can of worms.

    It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a person overdoses on a medical drug because the online dosage instructions were translated incorrectly in crowdsourcing. So, who is responsible in the ensuing criminal and (or) civil litigation -- Duolingo, the pharmaceutical manufacturer, the marketing agent, or a combination? Where will the injured party seek legal recourse?

  • Naturally, consistency contributes to quality
    Translation is like writing: style is unique to every individual. Professional translation includes procedures to ensure consistency of style in materials, be they documents or web pages. This is very important because (in)consistency in style contributes to (lack of) translation quality.

    Now, with crowd-sourcing, you have, well, a crowd on the job. And, without a strategy to achieve consistency in translation style you get what effectively reads like a “patchwork quilt” of styles. What procedure does Team Duolingo have in place to ensure consistency?

  • Information is dynamic -- Can Duolingo keep up?
    Mr von Ahn claims that the English edition of Wikipedia can be translated in about 80 hours with the right number of users. While this is well within the realm of possibility, it’s only half the translation solution required. What do I mean?

    It will take me 30 minutes to write this blog post, by which time the English edition of Wikipedia will have already changed significantly. After all, Wikipedia is itself a crowdsourcing project with thousands upon thousands of contributors constantly adding, editing, updating and deleting materials. This means that full time users will need to be assigned just to keep the translation of Wikipedia up-to-date. Now, let’s extrapolate this scenario to the entire Web, which is constantly changing, and we begin to understand there is much more to translation than, well, simply translating.

    Information is dynamic, and a complete translation solution requires a robust strategy to keep translated content up-to-date. Out dated translation is no different from out dated content -- it either becomes an historical record, or it goes in the trash bin.


These are fundamental issues in translation, which by its very nature is…professional. That is, linguistically qualified individuals with the right expert knowledge and experience performing translation (i.e. a task traditionally performed by specific individuals) in a timely manner.

These are still early days; however, unless Duolingo has in its possession a killer technology still to be unveiled to the public, my predictions for the Duolingo project are:

  1. Just like Wikipedia, it will become a Starting Point for further research in foreign languages due to credibility issues resulting from lack of qualified linguists translating with a lack of expert knowledge. As Jim Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, cautions “[Wikipedia] is a wonderful starting point for research. But it's only a starting point because there's always a chance that there's something wrong, and you should check your sources if you are writing a paper.”
  2. Its goals will be scaled down from “translate the entire web into every major language” to only translating static web content, such as news articles, that rarely, if ever, change into a few select languages. (Machine translation and professional human translation will still be the preferred choice of translation for the vast majority of dynamic, ever changing web content.)


What are your predictions for Team Duolingo?



About the Author
Ivan Vandermerwe is the CEO of SAECULII YK (Tokyo Japan), the owner of Japan Translation Service Tokyo Visit SAECULII for the latest professional articles and news on Japanese Translation Service

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Tags: English Japanese Translation · Japanese Translation Services · Professional · Translation Articles · Translation crowdsourcing · Translator Interpreter · Web Translation



3 &DISCUSS response(s) so far ↓

  • 1 » Daniel Gerson (2012-06-10)

    I think that your predictions are out of proportions. Will there be a role for some professional linguists in the future? of course. Will there be documents that absolutely require specialists to translate? certainly. However, like Wikipedia, duolingo has the potential to marginalize these domains to very niche markets (Britannica anyone?). I know doctors who use Wikipedia as well as their own medical bibles, because Wikipedia tends to update faster. Also, duolingo is only in Beta... I have every confidence that with successive versions, they will improve to levels that people aren't even considering at this point. Say you're an English doctor or lawyer moving to France. In that case it's in your incentive to become familiar with specialist jargon in your new language. If you consider how many exchange students fit this description AND if duolingo can identify these specialist individuals & text in that domain... then duolingo becomes incredibly valuable as a specialist translation tool. Again, they're in Beta. I think great things will come from this, and more down the line. Tech tends to compound on it's advances exponentially... so who knows what additions will manifest itself in the years to come. P.S. Your captcha is way too hard on your site!
  • 2 » SAECULII (2012-06-12)

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Daniel. As I originally posted, these are still early days. Oh, the CAPTCHA is designed to eliminate SPAM (of which we get by the bucket load!); however, legitimate posts get through in most cases.
  • 3 » Chris Gannon (2012-06-29)

    Hi Ivan, I think you've fundamentally misunderstood duolingo's aim. You're entirely right that there are realms where to use anything other than professional translation would be vastly, vastly irresponsible so I doubt that Duolingo would ever cover those. In the case of legal documents, confidentiality clauses would absolutely prohibit the use of a site that relied on many people providing the translation. In the examples that you've given I'd highly doubt that anything but professional translation would ever be used. Really, duolingo's purpose if to translate those parts of the internet that are more trivial and where the cost of a professional translator would be far more than could be justified for the site. As you well know, professional translators are quite expensive and for a very good reason. There's been an explosion of information available to people in the last thirty years, far more than could be translated by professional translators in our lifetime. That's where duolingo comes in, to provide a cheap way to translate the glut of lower priority information so that its potential audience can be increased. Personally I've tried to learn French in a few different ways over the years and so far duolingo has helped me make the most progress. I'm now able to read and somewhat understand French news articles and I'm referring to the subtitles less when listening to someone on TV speak in French. Von Ahn has repeatedly stated that the aim of duolingo is to help users develop intermediate language skills so, when they do start monetising it, businesses can go in with a decent expectation of what they should get. To that extent, the business model of professional translators will be safe as crowdsourced translation would be a poor choice for legal documents, textbooks, fiction and so on. In the meantime, I shall go back to improving my French thanks to this wonderful service, and I'll be interested to see how they deal with languages that don't use the Greco-Roman alphabet (I understand that Mandarin is one of the languages they want to implement soon.) Regards, Chris

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