What business are we in?

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had conversations with two of our business interns about what the Marco Polo Project actually does. Lily was creating a diagram to map our operation systems; Sara had to write a situation analysis of our company as an assignment for her marketing course. Both had the same central question: what business are we in?

The best thing about working with interns is that they are asking questions like this: they want to understand, and if anything is unclear, they’ll be quick to pick it up. Lily and Sara’s question is crucial, and I was a bit concerned that I was not able to give them a sharp and concise answer. So I’ve been thinking about it, and here’s an attempt at answering it in one sentence:

The Marco Polo Project is an online venture that proposes to create value from the by-products of language education.

This sentences captures our business proposal at a very abstract level. To describe our service offer more concretely, I’d like to start with how I originally came up with the idea of the Marco Polo Project.

Language students do translations as part of their course. Some of these translations are not too bad; and generally, language teachers give a correction in class, producing a version of the text which, if not always elegant or subtle, conveys at least the meaning accurately. But these translations all go to the bin.

Meanwhile, there is a large amount of Chinese writing published online and in print. Some of it is high quality, and would appeal to international readers interested in hearing a Chinese voice on a certain topic, or simply curious to discover new fiction and non-fiction from China. But hardly any Chinese writing is available in translation, and very few people outside China know enough Mandarin to directly select and read these texts in the original.

The Marco Polo Project proposes to channel the efforts of language students to make more Chinese writing available in translation.

There is one key concern with our proposal which many people pinpointed: quality control. What if our translations are inaccurate and inelegant?

Beside an immediate retort that student translations may not be all that bad, there are three elements of answer to consider.

The first is about risk moderation. We propose a green-lighting system that indicates how advanced a translation is. This system is run by the translators themselves, rating their own translation or that of another user. There is room for error, but overall, it gives readers some indication as to the quality of each translation. The readers may then choose to only read the most reliable material, or access translations in progress.

The second is about the fluid nature of online publishing. Unlike print, the web allows for continuous improvement; nothing ever has to be finalised. Our platform is based on a wiki system that allows for ongoing, collective revision. Readers will also be able to indicate their interest for a specific text, based on its title, topic, or author, increasing the chances that translators will work on it.

The third point is about the market we’re in. We are not offering a hand-picked selection of carefully crafted translations, but rougher material in bulk. Our value-added per text may be low, but the combined added-value of our translations will grow with time. We will become a reference not through the quality of our selection, but the possibilities offered by the quantity of untranslated material that we make available.

The Marco Polo Project uses the possibilities of online publishing to create a shared library of Chinese writing in translation which will grow and increase in quality with time.

The key to success for the Marco Polo Project will be to attract a critical mass of translators, regularly contributing new material to our library. Our platform is likely to encourage such collaboration.

Language learning institutions have an interest in their students practicing translation, and are therefore likely to promote our website. Our platform could also become a part of class activities – for instance, a translation class could be run as a collective submission to the Marco Polo Project.

Participating in our activities will also be an opportunity for students and amateur translators to show their skills and build a translation portfolio. Meanwhile, the possibility to reach a wide audience and contribute to a better understanding of China would be an incentive for students to do translation exercises on our platform.

The Marco Polo Project organises a community of translators who collectively build and maintain a free online library of Chinese writing in translation.

Another important element for success will be to ensure that our selection of texts is rich and varied, and that our readers can easily find a broad range of writing, in different genres and styles, and on a wide range of topics.

For that, we will need to build:

  • a network of Chinese readers who regularly submit original, well-written and stimulating Chinese writing to our website
  • a team of editors who select the most promising pieces, put them forward on our pages and use them to attract wider attention
  • a team of content managers who sort and label the texts in our databse, to derive the maximum value from our existing material.

These tasks may need to be performed by a selected team at first, but will be delegated later – totally or in part – to an online community of writers and readers interested in promoting a better understanding of China internationally.

These roles may particularly appeal to Chinese writers and bloggers. Our website will reveal emerging voices from China to an international audience. Some of the writers initially translated on our website will be able to negotiate direct contracts with established publishing houses or western media, and be professionally translated. The people engaged in sourcing, selecting and sorting the material for the Marco Polo Platform will influence on this outcome, and therefore influence the global perception of China, giving them an incentive to participate.

The Marco Polo Project organises a community of readers and writers contributing to better global understanding of China.

Given the business that we’re in, the Marco Polo core team will have three main roles:

  • Provide the Marco Polo community with a reliable and user-friendly web platform
  • Promote the Marco Polo Project through a range of channels and institutions, attracting a wide and capable community of users to build a rich and varied selection of material on the website
  • Monitor contents and conflicts, to ensure the project is not endangered by trolls or disruptive users.

Initially, the Marco Polo Project core team will need to kick-start the project, and will therefore also form the initial core of the Marco Polo community.

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The voice of the writer

I attended a session today at the City of Melbourne for applications to Small Business Start Up Grants. We were thinking of applying for one, but it turns out, after chatting with the organisers, that we’re not very likely to succeed.

Our project falls in between categories. Melbourne offers grants for innovative for-profit small businesses that will create employment and revenue for the City of Melbourne – but we’re not really doing that directly – and grants for businesses and organisations that assist underprivileged categories – homeless people, people with disabilities, refugees – but we’re not doing that either. Our not-for-profit  proposal to build cultural exchange and education does not really align with their key concerns. Fair enough.

But when I talked with the advisor there, she also said something which set me thinking (thank you advisor), when she said that our idea sounded great, but it was not really innovative, that the services already existed, we were just packaging them differently. I’m not 100/100 convinced that it’s the case, but I was glad to be confronted so directly. I reflected on the actual point of difference of our website, and realised it is about using and trusting the crowd to identify and translate original voices from China. I wrote a post on my personal blog about it, which I’m reposting here.

One question has been bugging me a lot lately, around the Marco Polo Project. A core, central, excruciating business question. Why would anyone actually  come to our website? I’ve had  lots of tactical answers so far, and they were good enough: people will come if we advertise properly and if we build strong networks, and they will stay if our website looks good, if it’s quick and efficient. This was supported by all sorts of documents, of how China’s definitely suprt-hot, and there’s a shortage of Chinese teachers, and online learning is the new frontier.

But that doesn’t address the core, hard question: why would anyone spend time on the Marco Polo Project, rather than reading blogs about China written in English, translating articles for wikipedia, or doing a language exchange on qq?

The only good answer I can give to that is: people will come to us if they’re  looking for the voice of original Chinese writers.

It sounds like a paradox, because one potential flaw in our model is that we’ll be relying on the work of amateurs for our translations – with potential loss of accurracy, and problems of quality control. And yet, I believe that we are the only translation and media platform that, from its conception and structure, really focuses on Chinese writing – in other words, on text construction, choice of words and point of view, rather than news and information.

Accordingly, once our platform is up, our work should be to filter, tag and bring up the best writing from the Chinese web, and build a strong editorial team with taste and intuition.

We believe that ‘information’ is not all that people are after, that the way things are said actually matters. We believe it is worthwhile to listen to Chinese voices, and follow the way they build an argument, or what steps they take when telling a story. We believe that even an amateur translation will carry most of that across, and we believe that making efforts to translate not only ‘contents’ but an individual voice is the best exercise to build on your language skills.

At least that’s the bet we’re making, and that there’s a public for it.

Market research

I spent last week-end working on our first market analysis documents. We had been doing a general scan of the environment, but this was the first time we systematically looked at who’s doing the same kind of thing we do, what features they propose, and how we may be different from them.

I re-discovered two very cool websites on the way – China Hush and China Smacks, which both propose ‘hot topics’ from the Chinese web in translation. Their model is different from ours, in that they think of themselves more as a magazine than a language learning and cultural dialogue community. But their stuff is pretty cool!

Yet one thing struck me: there are a few websites out there translating English to Chinese or Chinese to English; but other languages are completely left out. So that’s the big original thing about Marco Polo – multilingualism. Will that work? We shall see.