Journalism 2.0 and Translation

by Translation Guy on August 17, 2012

Back in the day at CNN, you could be sure that field producer in Moscow spoke Russian. For old-school foreign correspondents, it took a second language to get the story.

In the new media, the social media, that kind of local knowledge is both no longer sufficient and no longer required for breaking news argues CNN’s old Moscow field producer, Mike Sefanov. Mainstream news war-horses have been left at the starting gate when it comes to breaking news. Wise old pipe-smoking bureau chiefs have now  been put out to pasture.

“Today’s online translation tools make it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to read texts in foreign languages and translate entire web pages. The addition and proliferation of social media has made our world even smaller by allowing us to correspond with one another on a personal level across barriers previously penetrable only with the aid of interpreters,” says Sefanov. For journalists like him, “the convergence of these technologies means that we can travel from story to story without stepping away from the computer, interview locals without hiring a fixer, and gather content from the epicenter of an event.”

Sefanof provides a blow-by-blow example on  a breaking Syrian story using Google Translate.

“I came across the following tweet from local activist @HamaEcho:

“Burning the political security branch & municipality … & police station … of Hajar Aswad, #Damascus

— Sami al-Hamwi (@HamaEcho) July 18, 2012

“The tweet identified the video as taking place in Hajar Aswad, Damascus. Google Maps shows us that Hajar Aswad is a neighborhood in Damascus proper. But the title of the first YouTube video linked to reads, ‘حرق مبنى المجلس المحلي لمدينة الحجر الاسود 18-7-2012.’ Because I do not read Arabic, I used Google Translate, to obtain the following: “Burning building of the local council of the city of the Black Stone 18/07/2012”. This translation confirmed what @HamaEcho described, except for the reference to “the city of the Black Stone” But by translating “city of black stone” using Google Translate, and then pasting the Arabic translation into  a Google Map search, Hajar Aswad was confirmed.

Saefanov has souped up his Chrome browser to use the translate extension  to follow foreign languages conversations more easily. “This is crucial: in most cases, those “reporting” on the ground frequently do so in their native language,” he says. For anyone doing research outside the English ghetto, setting up Chrome to translate non-English pages automatically creates a whole new surfing experience.

Sefanov iseaven using the same technology for mini language lessons.  “By taking a word and placing it into Google Translate and then pressing the “listen” button, it is even possible to hear the way something in a foreign language sounds. This becomes useful in instances where activists might be naming the location of what they are filming within the video itself – a keen ear can pick up the place name to help in the process of verification.” Sounds like a stretch to me, Mark, but maybe you’ve got the ear for it. For textual translation it can be invaluable for regular non-English searches.

I agree with Sefanov that none of this is a worthy substitute for the first-hand knowledge of a local ways and insider expertise, but tight deadlines and tight budgets are changing the way the news is made. Without journalistic  wing-tipped shoes on the ground, MT tools have been used to replace the irreplaceable. “In any case its very important to rely on local knowledge to make sure that viewers understand the context of what they see on YouTube or Twitter.”

Mike provides a really invaluable description of how a professional advances his career through the use of the technology, and I thought some of his MT work-arounds were very clever. Anybody else have some success stories on how they use automated translation tools for research in other languages?


  1. Jane says:

    Not sure I trust online translating programs for important news content.

  2. Keith says:


  3. Puppy says:

    Actually Google Translate helped me actually learn another language to a certain degree, that I could relax my reliance on it.

  4. Karen says:

    Really quite scary that news organizations rely on technology over actual humans with the knowledge and skill.

  5. In one sense this is great, information is more acessible and the global community can become more active in sharing news; on the other hand accuracy comes into question.

  6. Wendy says:

    Great article.

  7. Susan says:

    Never really gave it much thought, but its a shame thay people are losing jobs to a computer program.

  8. Ah, the overreliance of man on technology, welcome to the modern age.

  9. My post grad thesis work was greatly aided by automated translation, translating pdf. Files of foreign language academic journal articles would have been impossible or far too expensive/time consuming to accomplish without it.

  10. Kerri says:

    You’re def a specialist in this area! Maybe you’ll know the answer to this question then: how do large English based news services (like CNN) translate news from Arabic speaking outlets or even Arabic Twitter news accounts? Do they use a combo of automatic and human based translation services? What companies do they use?

    • Ken says:

      They don’t use us, I know that. After 9/11 it took about three years for the news media to develop their own Arabic language capability. I assume that Google MT is critical for everyone, including bilinguals. I best that a really high percentage of Google translate calls are by bilinguals testing translation grammar and spelling.

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