Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Learn a Language, Work for Free: Part 1
January 25, 2012 - By: - In: Translation - 11 comments

“Luis Von Ahm claims he can translate Wikipedia – all 2 billion words of it – from English into Spanish in just 80 hours. What’s more, he will not have to pay anyone to do the work.”

Von Ahn, Carnegie Mellon computer scientist and serial internet entrepreneur, plans to unleash hordes of language students, armed only with online language instruction software, to translate the Web. The plan is to turn the homework generated by students of these free online language lessons into professional quality translation.

So, learn a language while you translate. Or is it the other way around? What’s the difference? Von Ahn gets it both ways. “The crazy thing about this method is that it works,” he says.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And Von Ahn gets to say it at TED, because his “Ideas are Worth Spreading,” because the internet genius has done the same kind of thing already. Von Ahn is the brains behing reCAPTCHA, that awful little Turing test that forces you to prove your humanity every time you fill out a web form. CAPTCHAs are used by many web sites to prevent abuse by “bots” busy spamming everything they can. They are the child-proof caps of the Internet. But reCAPTCHA has a twist.

Look familiar? You’ve got to re retype the two words into the form to prove to the Web that you are not a bot. So the script to be copied has to be hard enough so that the spam bots can’t read it, but easy enough for humans to follow.

Globally, we do about 200 million every 24 hours, for a daily total of around 150,000 hours sliced from the  life of humanity. Von Ahn figured he would piggy-back a transcription service for this necessary security task by doubling everyone’s work load. In Von Ahn’s version, the second word is a reject from an optical character scanner. You key in the correct spelling of the hard-to-scan word and Von Ahn gets the money.  Since he doesn’t pay his transcribers, he can undercut transcription services whom trapped in the past, are engaged in the archaic process of actually paying their workers. Which is a good thing, according to Von Ahn, because now transcription is cheaper, so more can be done (for free),

Well, he would say that, too. It’s revealing of the age that such a life-sucking macro-parasite is lauded for his prowess in getting people to do something for nothing.

Duolingo, his new translation service, is now open for testing, although you’ll have to get on a waiting list (200,000 names so far) to join up, since the beta is oversubscribed. Lessons are available in Spanish or German and part of the instructional method includes translating written sentences and rating the accuracy of translations made by others. Multiple review by multiple students keep student errors from leaking through to the client side, in theory. Early reports are that the course work is fun and engaging, which will be absolutely essential to keep students coming back to translate for free.

From the student side, early signs point to great success. Whatever pedagogical friction caused by  the need for random acts of  translation, will surely be outweighed for users by the siren call of the Net, “free”. And at least people will be learning a language while doing Duolingo rather than simply contributing the involuntary servitude required of reCAPTCHA. But what about the translations? Speculation on that next time.

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