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! Infographics


Come work with us!!

The Marco Polo Project team is growing – and it’s your chance to join our amazing adventure!

We just opened exciting new roles in our business, engagement and editorial teams –  check our the full list on this page.

These roles are offered on a volunteer basis, but successful candidates will receive free mentorship from our founder, and work in a supportive work environment that encourages independence, learning and development.

We look forward to hearing from you and – maybe – work with you on the next phase of our project.

For any further information, please contact us at info@marcopoloproject.

Chinese translation workshops

Our online community now has a regular offline presence in Melbourne!


On the 23rd of February, we ran our first collaborative translation workshop, in partnership with Language Connection. These workshops now take place every Saturday, 12h30 to 2h30, at the Multicultural Hub on Elizabeth Street.

Why run workshops?

Our mission is to develop Chinese and China literacy. The model we propose to use is a collaborative model, based on peer-learning and crowd-sourcing.

We form a digital community, with a primary web-presence. But our learners and translators are not only ‘web-users’, and their desire to read and translate new writing from China is not restricted to their internet selves.


Running regular workshops is a way for us to better understand our learners and translators, and improve the services we provide. For learners, it is an opportunity to meet new people sharing similar interests, and practice their language and translation skills in a supportive social setting.

How do the workshops run?

In each workshop, a group of participants work together on a Chinese text, and produce an English translation.


This is how the process runs:

  • Before the workshop, we post a selection of texts on our meetup and facebook pages, so participants can choose a favorite, and have time to read it
  • On the day, we start with a few warm up activities, then break up the workshop into small tables of three or four, trying to balance native Mandarin and English speakers.
  • Each table is given one or two paragraphs to translate, and works on them for about an hour. The facilitator circulates, and helps each group deal with translation difficulties.
  •  At the end of the session, the facilitator invites each table to read their translation, and reflect on the process – what was hard, exciting, surprising, familiar, etc.
  • The translations are then uploaded to the Marco Polo Project website, and published.


What are the learning benefits? 

These translation workshops benefit learners in the following ways:

  • All participants speak at least some Chinese and English, and practice both languages at their table while working on the translation.
  • Mandarin learners not only practice reading characters and encounter new vocabulary, but by looking in-details at the structure of a Chinese text, they develop a much better understanding of Chinese grammar and stylistic patterns.
  • These benefits extend to native Mandarin speakers learning English. Not only can they learn new vocabulary from other participants:  more importantly, when trying to produce an adequate translation, they develop a better awareness of the stylistic and grammatical differences between Chinese and English, and develop strategies to write and speak more idiomatic English.
  • Finally, the workshops are an opportunity for participants to make new friends, and gain motivation to study further from a sense of collective emulation.


So, why don’t you come and join our next workshop – all details for the Melbourne workshops can be found on this meetup page and facebook group.

Or if you would like help to start a workshop in your city, please contact, or send us a tweet @mpoloproject.

Reflections on our translation model – an interview with James Friesen

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!

James Friesen

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 ‘’. 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’ (

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.

It’s a large web out there

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

No website is an island, entire of itself. The web is a living ecosystem where each individual platform largely depends on others around it. The Marco Polo Project does not operate in a void, but in relation to a number of existing online organisations who share parts of our mission. It is therefore crucial to be clear about where we propose to fit, and contribute to that existing ecosystem.

This post is also an acknowledgement of our main collaborators and sources of inspiration. This post is not intended as an exhaustive list.

When people ask me where I see the Marco Polo Project in 5 years time, I generally reply that I would like it to be ‘one of the twenty reference websites for people wishing to learn Chinese and read about China’. ‘One of’ is the key part here. We do not wish to build a one-stop-shop for Chinese literacy, but be part of a network of like-minded online (and offline) organisations.

Our mission combines language learning and the publication of Chinese writing in translation. In both areas, we complement existing ventures

‘Learn Chinese’ websites are not rare. But most of them just offer lists of words and grammar rules for beginners, complemented, at best, with a few podcasts and ‘cultural facts’. For intermediate and advanced learners – our target user group – the choice is still very limited. And, in particular, opportunities for active learning are rare. So there seems to be a gap for semi-fluent learners, those who’ve outgrown all ‘beginner’s’ resources, yet are not comfortable enough to just navigate Chinese-only websites, and want to improve their reading capability. This is our core niche – not a huge one, but an important and a growing one. At the moment, two main platforms share it with us. FluentU offers a selection of videos from the Chinese web with subtitles. Lang-8 offers the possibility to write a blog in Chinese, and have native speakers correct it. Users can also read the blogs of other learners. Another website worth mentioning is the brilliant Chinesepod, who propose very good podcasts tailored for all levels. These websites are great for practicing listening and writing skills; we may currently be the only one focusing on reading capability for high intermediate and advanced Mandarin learners, and combining quality contents with active language practice.

Though rare in light of the extreme wealth of material, a number of websites offer bilingual versions of Chinese writing. These are mostly not labelled as ‘language learning sites’, but can be of use to language learners. The main ones to quote are brilliant Chinasmack for ‘pop culture’ trends on the Chinese web, Ministry of Tofu for social trends, China dialogue for the environment, and Paper Republic for literature. Our contents selection complements that offered on these platforms: we are the only ones to really focus on long-view opinion and reflection pieces by leading intellectuals and a representative selection of blog-posts by young Chinese urban bloggers.

By filtering and translating this content, we act as a mediator between Chinese and English language online magazines. Our existence depends on that of a few Chinese blog aggregators – 1510, consensus network, niubo, and the social networking system douban – who do the hard work of selecting, filtering and organising the original contents. It also largely depends on online magazines and websites about China targeting a Western audience, not just by providing translations, but also commentaries and analyses. Among those, we already collaborate with Danwei and the China story, and wish to extend these collaborations in the future, becoming a regular contributor to other online (and offline) magazines for China-focused contents. Danwei proposes a good list of those, as well as high quality China-focused blogs.

Finally, we complement an existing and more established China-based website: Their platform proposes a selection of English-language writing in Chinese translation, and their translations are crowd-sourced. To an extent, they are a mirror organisation to us. Their focus however is less on training language learners, and more on making content accessible. Probably because translators typically work from their second to their first language, and many more Chinese people read English than English-speakers do Mandarin. We are now in contact with yeeyan, and discussing the form a collaboration could take – collaborative events or online collaboration.

Another similar project was a source of inspiration – and early advice to us: Their goal is to promote dialogue between the English- and Arab-speaking world, with a focus on news and events in the Middle East. Their website offers various articles about an event, from English or Arabic language sources, with automatic translation improved by users. Comment threads themselves appear in bilingual format.

So this is where we fit in the landscapes. These are the closest knots to us in the fabric of the web. For more general inspiration, we should finally quote Wikipedia, and their work on crowd-sourcing knowledge organisation and translation.

Can you think of other websites we should add to the list? Please, send us their reference, we’d love to learn about them!

LCNAU Colloquium

Last night, Raphael and I presented a poster on the Marco Polo Project at the first LCNAU Colloquium.  The poster was well received, and we had quite a few conversations with lecturers from around Australia. In particular, we had a wonderful chat with Beatrice Atherton from the University of Queensland, who promised to put us in contact with her colleagues in the Chinese department. The University of Queensland is building a translation program specialising in English-Chinese translation. Precisely the public we’re looking for!

This was the first official presentation of Marco Polo to an external audience, and it went OK. This bodes well for the future. Part of the success must be attributed to the beautiful graphic work done by wonderful Mathieu Vendeville.

In the evening, we stayed for the LCNAU dinner. I had a great conversation with my table partner, Lynne Li from RMIT. She gave me this interesting tip: I should not put aside writing in my Chinese learning, but copy characters. In her experience, students who regularly copy words are those who learn the best. I received similar advice from a philosophy teacher in preparatory class. In order to improve my writing skills, he once told me that I should copy. ‘Keep it a secret, but it’s the most effective way’. So I spent hours copying Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois in a little A5 notebook. And my writing improved. I will try that with Chinese now.


A few days ago, I exchanged emails with Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs the wonderful Danwei online magazine. I was introduced to Jeremy through Professor Geremie Barme at ANU, himself introduced by Jill Collins at the Australian Embassy in Beijing. Thank you networks! It is really precious, when you start a project like this one, to received some attention and support.

I was thrilled when I saw Jeremy’s email. He’s a legend – he’s been one of the most influential online writers in China for the last 8 years. And now he’s giving us advice. He confirmed our initial thought that crowd-sourcing would only really work if we built solid partnerships with teaching institutions, who would feed a regular inflow of fresh and motivated translators to our website. He also expressed concern about the quality of our translations – something most people have talked about. We will need to think about it more deeply, maybe find a way to pay translators to review advanced work, or have ‘sponsored’ articles, with a reward for the translator.

But now, my main feeling is confidence in the possibilities of the internet. Jeremy was very friendly, and very quick to contact us. Earlier this year, I had a similar thrill when I contacted, and they got back to us rightaway, telling us about their web system.

Right, we’re still a bunch of random friends buidling a website in our study. But I can see how, slowly, we’re beginning to exist as a group with a mission. It’s a great transition, towards a proper collective. Thank you Danwei for the tips. Let’s do this thing!