Learn a Language, Work for Free, Part 2 Limburger Cheese Protocal

by Translation Guy on January 27, 2012

Learn a language and translate the Web for free is the latest plan hatched by Luis Von Ahn, inventor of reCAPTCHA and master of getting millions to work for him for free.

Don’t know the guy? Let me introduce you to your boss. You work for Von Ahn every time you complete a web form reCAPTCHA, which is one brand of those  little transcription tests you have to take every time you fill out a web form. This for reasons of security,  to prove to the web page that you are human and not some auto-bot on a mission to spam all in its path. Von Ahn’s particular CAPTCHA requires that you enter two words, or more if you aren’t lucky enough to guess correctly the first time around, since reCAPTCHA is pretty tough for humans too. Business model? You transcribe for free, and Von Ahn sells it. Now he is going to do the same thing with translation.   He expects millions to sign up for his free language instruction service Duolingo.

Here’s the catch, or the business opportunity, depending on which end of the stick you are holding. Von Ahn sneaks translation assignments into the lesson plan, and then sells the translation. People are itching to give it away, a stomach-churning prospect for those of us  trolling  for paying customers down Translation Alley.

The beta is already oversubscribed, so he may have a hit on his hands.  “The crazy thing about this method is that it works,” he says. He would say that, wouldn’t he?

Others are more skeptical. Mark Chatow, vice-president at Servio, a crowdsourcing service based in San Francisco, doesn’t think the translations provided by the  Duolingo-nauts is going to get much beyond “this is a pen” translation.  “Anything that relies solely on learners will limit the number of experts who will participate,” he says.

Our own work at 1-800-Translate suggests that a different sets of cognitive skills are used by linguists as syntax lengthens and expression gets more complex. A word or phrase is one translator skill set, but fit and finish, clause by clause, sentence by sentence is a writerly task that still seems beyond the reach of algorithm.

I would think that idioms would be tough for newbie translator/language students. But at least the number of idioms in a language is finite. They can all be recorded, and recovered when the time is right. But what of metaphor?  Metaphor is a mixed bucket. Or jokes, or irony, or style? That kind of knowledge is why all the best translators have grey hair.

And what of the three sacred treasures of translation? Where are the style guide, the translation memory, the terminology base, and how will the young translator/students be guided to correct style?

Will cheaters trash it with Google Translate and contaminate the system? Then students would learn to speak Google Translate language instead of the actual language. And pretty soon we’ll all be speaking that way. That would be strange.

Now even in top rant mode like now, I’m not claiming that will come to pass. All the swarm translation programmers like Von Ahn must be working hard to solve those problems, but I can’t image that they are there yet, although I suspect his model will produce better quality than the current state of on-demand single-pass you see now, which can be  hard for purchasers to distinguish from machine translation.

But Von Ahn promises DuoLingo is going to be as good as the services provided by professional translators. I gotta admit, when I first heard that, I went ballistic. In fact I’ve got the outtake from the security camera below.


As you can see, a life-changing event. After that timely Limburger intervention by my crew, I was reborn with a new sense of mission. If not me, who? If not now, when? Well, it was after  I finished a ham sandwich and watched a couple of episodes of Gossip Girls on Netflix with my daughter, that I realized that it was up to me,  yes, me, TranslationGuy, to defend our translator’s way of life.

Von Ahn, public notice here, I am bringing you down. Not just because this is total business war, but because I can’t read your CAPTCHAs anymore either, or at least the ones with those Nike swooshes everywhere. (What’s up with that, some product placement thing?) Anyway, in my next post, I will reveal the Achilles heel of reCAPTCHA, the secret chink in your business model that could bring about the downfall of your crowd-sourced empire of indentured servitude which now spreads its tentacles to translation-dom and the profit that it stands for.

Translators of the world, join me next time as we tackle this problem, Lattimore-like, by the heel!


  1. Good morning Sir.

    I’m italian, I live in Italy, and I’m a translator. I’m at the beginning of my career, and I was looking for some websites about translation, and translation agencies to send my Cv to when…I came upon Duolingo website, and I ought to say, it made me so sad! Then I didn’t stop searching and I found your blog and this article; and it made me so hopeful!
    I’ll post it on my social networks, but I’d also like to translate it into italian, and publish it on my website; may I have your permission and maybe your support?

    My best regards,

    Raffaella Diacono

    • SusanAnn says:

      That’s a great idea, Raffaella! But, just like Luis Von Ahn’s minions, how can you ensure that you are translating the original style and irony of the translaion guy?

  2. Elaina Jysik says:

    My first impression of this idea was that it could never be as good as traditional translation, but I am intrigued as to how well it works. If he doesn’t have to pay translators, then he will have lots of money to pay the programmers to figure out all of the problems.

  3. Lili Murad says:

    I read part 1 and was looking forward to part 2. As always, I learn quite a bit from your blog. I was left wondering after the first one, but here you clear up a lot of my questions. I’m not sold on his idea, however, sounds like a gold mine if it works.

  4. Where does it end? Free translation, then what? Pretty soon the place is doing work online for free and eventually there are more layoffs, because everything from translation to book editing are getting done for free and a few need stay employed.

  5. Abdula says:

    Yes! Get us pumped up with those fightin’ words. I hope there is a part three and it doesn’t disappoint. I will be rooting for you.

  6. It makes we wonder if there were some sort of law or morality clause against this. I don’t think it would be legal for a teacher to take a students work and publish it or sell it. How can this guy do that?

  7. Ken, I think you made some very good points in this blog. I hope many get a chance to read and contemplate. I am interested to see where this goes and how translation quality is affected.

  8. Francis Neal says:

    Don’t feel bad, I have always been frustrated with Captchas and now I am so happy I know why they are there. I never thought they were important, but I see the necessity behind them – even if they do annoy the H!@# out of me.

    • Ken says:

      H!@# is incorrect. Please resubmit. -CAPTCHA

      • Hon Shu says:

        :-) I like your humor Mr. Ken

  9. “That kind of knowledge is why all the best translators have grey hair.” I have noticed that you are a bit grey on the temple in your profile pic.

    • Ken says:

      Those are the grizzled survivors, Linda. Each one more precious than the last.

  10. doglips says:

    Now we really know how you feel! I knew this must have been bothering you immensely. I don’t have my own translation service, but I would see this as a future decline in my business if his idea wors as well as he claims

    • Ken says:

      Well, you saw the video. He’s not declining my business, but I’m declining his.


  12. My initial thought as well. I wondered if the “students” would just use an online translation service like Google to get the assignment done. Then what is the quality like?

  13. Brent Moss says:

    Call me jealous, but I always dislike the young internet know it alls. Just wish I thought up something like this and made the money. However, I unite with you Ken, I think this jeopardizes a lot in the translation biz.

  14. PASE says:

    TranslationGuy, I will join you too. I went ballistic “inside”, but I have to let that anger out. Please visit my blog so that we can exchange and complement our views about Duolingo’s flaws.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software