Kara Swisher

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TEDTalks Go Global Online in 40 Languages (Including Urdu!)


Some of the best delivery of video on the Web right now is via the TED Web site–the Internet part of the well-known conferences where big thinkers express bigger thoughts, mostly focusing on technology, entertainment and design.

The organizers have long put those analog talks, called TEDTalks, online, but are now trying to make them even more accessible globally, starting today.

According to TED Media Executive Producer June Cohen, “every TED talk will have subtitles, an interactive, time-coded transcript, and the capacity to be translated by volunteers worldwide. We’ll launch with 300 translations in 40 languages (including lesser-knowns like Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, etc).”

Yipes! We were planning to translate All Things Digital in Pig Latin–for example: Ittertway isway away ecretsay otplay otay estroyday ethay umanhay aceray iavay Ashtonway Utcherkay–but nixed the effort due to cost.

In all seriousness, this “Open Translation” project by TED is of the kind that has become common across the Web as volunteers help sites go global, an important thing given that too many are still English-only.

Facebook, for example, has used this method to get its sites up quickly internationally.

Thus, a Wade Davis TEDTalk on endangered cultures is now in 22 languages, for example, while Barry Schwartz’s speech on the loss of wisdom is in seven, including Hungarian.

According to Cohen, every talk now has English subtitles, that time-coded transcript, translated headlines, the ability to browse for talks by language and language-specific URLs.

Here is an example of a page (click on it to make it larger):


Here’s the interesting explanation of the project, financially backed by Nokia (NOK), from the TED Web site:

A year in the making, the TED Open Translation Project brings TEDTalks beyond the English-speaking world by offering subtitles, time-coded transcripts and the ability for any talk to be translated by volunteers worldwide. The project launched with 300 translations in 40 languages, and 200 volunteer translators.

Generously supported by a visionary sponsorship from Nokia, the TED Open Translation Project is one of the most comprehensive attempts by a major media platform to subtitle and index online video content. It’s also a groundbreaking effort in the public, professional use of volunteer translation.

Subtitles and transcripts

Every talk on TED.com will now have English subtitles, which can be toggled on or off by the user. The number of additional languages varies from talk to talk, based on the number of volunteers who elected to translate it.

Along with subtitles, every talk on TED.com 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.

The interplay between the video, subtitles and transcript create what we call a Rosetta Stone effect. You can watch, for example, an English talk, with Korean subtitles and an Urdu transcript. Click on an Urdu phrase in the transcript, and the speaker will say it to you in English, with Korean subtitles running right-to-left below. It’s captivating.

The translations

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.

At launch, the Open Translation Project included 300 translations, in 40 languages, including Arabic, Basque, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Kirghiz, Korean, Macedonian, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese. Our translators hail from cities from Beijing to Buenos Aires; Tehran to Tel Aviv; Espoo, Finland, to Barranquilla, Colombia.

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.

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