Have you ever wondered what Marco Polo Project achieved in its first year online? Or would you like to share the awesomeness of our initiative with your friends at one glance? The amazing Glenn Stephenson put together this infographics for us – please share it around!
At our last board meeting, we spent some time reflecting about the core values that drive us and inspire what we do. We think it’s now time to share them in this post – and more permanently on this page.
Marco Polo Project values
Curiosity: we respect and encourage the desire to learn and explore new areas of knowledge.
Diversity: we believe in a world where multiple voices can be heard, multiple cultures can thrive, and multiple organisations can co-exist.
Collaboration: we believe in people and organisations working together to achieve their goals, building on each other’s strengths and supporting each other.
Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!
I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to ‘http://marcopoloproject.org’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:
JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?
JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.
JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?
JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.
JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?
JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.
JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?
JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.
JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?
JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.
JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?
JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.
*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (http://marcopoloproject.org/online/the-tears-of-animals/)
JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something?
JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.
JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have?
JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.
JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?
JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.
Our crowd-funding campaign has been successful! Over the last three weeks, we gathered $3,020 from a community of 76 people. This marks a major step for Marco Polo Project. Not only can we now develop a proposed set of improvements to our website, and make our platform more attractive to translators; this is also the first time we’ve had money coming in on such a scale from outside the core founding team. There now is a community supporting us, and we’re accountable to them to do the best we can.
As a form of meditative acknowledgement for this extremely generous support, I would like to end this series of reflections with a post on evaluation. As an organisation looking for government, community and philanthropic support, it is crucial for us to measure success efficiently: transparency and accountability are, rightfully, basic requirements to receive such funding. But we should also spend time to meaningfully reflect about what actually constitutes a good measure of success for our organisation.
The project is now two years old, and meets all the basic conditions for fulfilling our mission. From what was originally just an idea and a group of people, we have set up a formal organisation, built a website, selected a catalogue of texts, gathered a community, and defined a working model. This phase of ‘initial set up’ is over, now we must move on to more strategic development.
Our goal is to contribute to Chinese and China literacy on a global scale. We propose to do so by developing an online platform gathering a digital community that translates, reads and discusses contemporary Chinese writing. And as we grow, we would like more translators to spend more time on our website, producing more and better translations as a result, which more readers will read, share and discuss. This defines three core areas for measuring success: translator engagement, readership, and contents.
The last one – contents – is probably the easiest to measure. The absolute number of translations on our website is an indicator of success. For more refined appreciation, we should produce a set of measures combining the number of texts translated, their average length, and the ‘level of completion’ reached. This, however, does not indicate the quality of our selection – which will be more subtly appreciated by proxy measures, such as number of ‘shares’, feedback from users (comments, star ratings), and mentions of our selection quality in the media or on blogs.
To measure readership engagement, web analytics are a good starting point. The best indicator derived from web analytics is probably the total time spent on the website – number of visits * average time per visit. The number of comments and shares is another indicator. Proxy measures include social media reach out (number of people ‘liking’ our facebook page and twitter followers; and their level of interaction), link-backs to our website on other blogs or websites, and media collaborations, such as guest-blogging or re-posts.
At a basic level, translator engagement will be measured as the total number of registered users and, among them, the number of active users (actually producing translations). Comments from users or – if they are students – by their teachers about their increased Chinese language fluency, understanding of China, and motivation to learn Chinese, will also allow us to indirectly measure the success of our translator engagement. This data will be gathered ad hoc; pending funding availability, we may also conduct a survey or focus group to better assess success.
We are currently devising a series of strategic documents that will articulate both our core activities and projects aiming to improve readership, contents, or translators engagement. When these are finished – in a month or so – we will be ready for the second phase of Marco Polo Project’s existence, beyond initial set up, towards building a sustainable organisation.
So that our systems can improve, I’m going to develop a series of business process flowcharts that clearly map out interactions on our systems. All models are generated on http://www.diagram.ly/
I wish to thank Lily Li, who did a first model during her internship with us, and David Rawlinson, for suggesting to develop these models and put them online.
The first person to put this question in front of me was my friend Pearly, who works as financial advisor in Hong Kong. I was talking to her about the website, and she very naturally asked: “What’s your business model.” I was a bit embarrassed at the time that I didn’t have an answer. The second time was during my interview with Jean-Michel Billaut when, again, the question hit me: “How do you make money from that?”.
We’ve thought about it, of course. But for some reason, I kept pushing it away, finding it irrelevant. Yet if people are asking, I should give them an answer. So I started looking at ‘business models’. As a former arts student, an educator, and a writer, I always find ‘business’ talk alienating at first – until I discover it’s only new labels on standard ideas and concepts. As a translator, I would know that people have different languages, and it’s a good thing if you can speak more than one. So ‘business models’ are simply proposals about the way that an organisation will access resources and derive revenue from its activities. I can handle that.
I looked around, and I found about something called a ‘community model’ – wikipedia would be the best example on the web. In an organisation running on a ‘community model’, monetary transactions are kept at a minimum; most of the tasks are done on a voluntary basis, for intrinsic reasons, symbolic rewards, or because participants derive a direct benefit from working with the community.
That’s how we’ve been running so far, and that’s how we plan to run in the future. The Marco Polo Project is a very cheap organisation to run. We built our website, systems, database and community so far on 3,000 dollars, although the project also received a considerable amount of support – as work-hours, advice and publicity mostly – for a value much higher than this. Our only monetary needs are to pay for web hosting and government fees, less than $500 a year. So we could keep the Marco Polo Project running on a yearly budget equivalent to the price of an i-pad.
Now that is not entirely true. To reach a critical mass of users, and keep our existing community satisfied, we need new features on the website – multiple languages, better searching and sorting, a personalised user page, mobile compatibility – and this in turn will require more design and programming, which will have a cost. On a more ongoing basis, we need to keep editorial standards, both for choice of texts and translation quality control, and someone has to keep the structure together – making sure bills are paid, newsletters are sent and mailing lists are updated. But even then, the platform could be successful on a skeleton team of paid part-timers and interns working flexible hours with no set office. And it’s not impossible that we could raise enough money for such a team through donations, grants and sponsorships.
So that’s our business model: we won’t ‘make money’, that’s not our purpose. We design and develop a free tool for people to practice Mandarin and learn about China; we pick, sort and label a selection of quality Chinese writing; we maintain and engage a virtual community of translators and language learners. We bring together people across languages. It’s not expensive. We’re looking for grants and sponsors. We’re looking for more volunteers. And we take donations. Can you help?
Rousseau called it “l’esprit de l’escalier” – staircase wit – finding your bon mot, the one that would set everyone laughing, just a few hours too late. It happens to all of us. It’s happened to me just recently.
Two days ago, I did a skype interview with a French IT guru, Jean-Michel Billaut, about the Marco Polo Project. We set off on the wrong foot: our first interview, scheduled at the end of May, had been cut short by cause of bad internet (when is NBN coming again?) So this time, I went to Hub Melbourne, where they have a decent connection (thank you Rick Chen @pozible.com). At 7pm, Melbourne time, for an 11am, French time interview.
And I wasn’t happy with it. For some reason, my French was confused (am I forgetting my mother tongue), and Jean-Michel kept asking me questions that somehow set me off balance – what’s our business model, how to find a French translation on the site, or whether Melbourne was better than Sydney. I did not manage to give back precisely pitched, clear and sharp answers that viewers would carry on in their head, like a mantra. Well, there’ll be more interviews.
The good thing is, retrospective frustration has shaken my brain a bit, and I’ve now coined a nice expression to describe Marco Polo Project. It is a tool to better understand China.
By using our platform, our users can improve their understanding of the Chinese language, and improve their understanding of the Chinese context. This defines it clearly. And entails a clear user base – people who want to better understand China. Popular as “China” has become, that’s far from everyone. More and more people want to benefit from or protect themselves from China – but few want to actually understand it. The former won’t care for us, and we won’t care much for them either. but I hope the latter will come to us, and tell us how to better develop our platform, so we can better serve them over time.
One thing to note in this definition is the comparative – our website will help users better understand China – that is, if they know something about it already. We’re not a website for language beginners, neither do we provide a broad stroke cultural overview. People will come to us to refine their knowledge, by reading original voices, or practicing translation skills that are, already, somewhat developed.
In other words, we won’t be “the China portal”, and our audience will be limited – but what we can hope for is to become a solid reference for people interested in that niche – and, I guess, it’s a niche, but a growing one.