A text unread is as good as dead

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit pozible.com/marcopoloproject.

When I present Marco Polo Project somewhat sketchily, people sometimes imagine that our platform is a sort of google translate surrogate – a piece of software automatically translating Chinese writing into foreign languages. Machine translation works better and better, it is going to radically change the way people engage across languages, and I personally love using it for my own translations. But it’s not what we do.

Marco Polo Project is not competing with machine translators – challenging google with no funds would be somewhat ludicrous – but we must articulate our goals and purpose in the context of their existence. Hence this post.

The goal of the Marco Polo Project is to build Chinese and China literacy. We propose to do so by inviting people to read and translate contemporary Chinese writing. The machine may translate, but the machine doesn’t read – or more precisely, no-one cares if it does.

Google translate is a superb tool; but on its own, it will not build any China literacy. Human translation has this one advantage over machine translation that at least one person – the translator – has to read the text. Translation, after all, is a form of advanced reading. By translating a text, you understand intimately the structures of a language, but also how another person articulates an argument – or develops a fictional world through language. You gain insight not only into the language, but also the subjective expression of another person’s vision. Even a task as mundane as pasting text into google translate, cursorily reading the result, and pasting it back into the website, is a form of reading, and a form engagement with Chinese writing.

Our platform is not just about ‘producing contents’, like a workshop or factory would produce cars or tables. It is about engaging a community. And that is a very different goal. A translation of a text, whether it was generated by a machine or a person, simply sitting online, has no value until it meets a reader. A text unread is as good as dead.

Our new developments will encourage reading texts and sharing them, by allowing users to quickly ‘evaluate’ a translation, but also like and share texts, and list on their profile page all of these social interactions. Each user will build a personalised library connecting to their profile.

Beside, we just pitched in a grant application to the Victorian Multicultural Commission to lead a full programme of community engagement. If we are successful, we will develop a series of workshops and translation events – online and offline, to encourage participation by increasing the social element.

This is how we propose to build China literacy, and improve the conditions for cross-cultural dialogue: not just by producing translated contents, but by creating an ecosystem that encourages more and more people to read, translate and discuss the views expresses in writing from China.


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