Our sources – Douban

Another regular source of articles for is is Douban.

Douban.com, launched on March 6, 2005, is a Chinese social networking website allowing registered users to create content related to cultural life in Chinese cities. Some Chinese authors and critics also register their official personal pages on the site. Douban registered users are mostly young urban Chinese people who go to the platform for ratings and reviews of books/movies or music or join movements and discussion boards, and it gives a direct insight into emerging trends in urban China.

Our sources – my1510

Readers and users often ask us where we source our texts. So we thought it was time we prepared a short series of posts about our sources.

Our first go-to website is My1510.


This online platform created by Chinese TV journalist Rose LuQiu LuWei brings together articles written by different Chinese writers and bloggers. Some of the pieces published here are shared from traditional media, while some are original blog posts; some writers are recognised intellectuals others emerging citizen bloggers. Topics range from politics, society and cultural analysis to more personal reflections on contemporary Chinese life.

The platform was developed around one core vision: to provide independent opinions and valuable information. My1510 bridges the gap between news from traditional media channels and opinions from citizen bloggers, striving to be a platform that provides valuable information for its readers.

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 ‘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.

It’s a large web out there

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

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: yeeyan.org. 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: meedan.net. 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!

Changes in the ‘contents’ industry – blurring the line between reader and writer

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

This post talks about changes in ‘contents’ industries brought about by the internet. Nothing I’m writing here is remarkably original, but it’s important to rearticulate things, and clearly define how these changes are influencing the model we’re building.

One of the reasons Marco Polo Project is such an exciting venture to develop is that it shares the challenges of other ‘cultural contents industries’ currently going through radical changes – journalism, publishing, film and music. Until recently, these industries were in charge of producing contents which was then distributed in a certain media format; people – consumers – finally paid to access or own a copy of that content.

The internet has radically changed the game, by transforming the way cultural contents is produced, distributed, and consumed. To put it simply, the same device (a computer, tablet or smart-phone connected to the internet) is now used to produce, distribute and consume a large proportion of all writing, film and music. Physical objects still exist – books, CDs, DVDs, rolls of film – as well as live venues; but more and more cultural products are read, watched or listened to directly from computers.

This transformation has a series of consequences.

The first is a drastic reduction in the cost of distributing contents. I’m not talking about fraud or illegal copies, which is a separate issue. An e-book, a digital copy of a film, or a music track do not need to be stored or transported; making new copies to meet demand can occur instantaneously, and disposing of unsold products can be done at almost no cost. This is great for the consumer, this can be great for the producer, but is dramatic for distributors – as well as many trades involved in the production of physical media carrying cultural contents.

The second consequence is a blurring of the distinction between production and consumption of cultural contents. Writers not only write books for print or articles for printed magazines: they have a blog, and a twitter account where they interact with their audience; and many people in their audience also have a blog and twitter, on which they produce contents not dissimilar in nature. Many people produce videos and music, and share them on youtube or myspace. Some imitate or reproduce existing hits – karaoke versions of popular songs, samples and montages – or take place in the universe of a particular book or film – fan-fiction. And for the news, citizen journalists complement the work of traditional media by providing direct videos or pictures – while the comment thread (once you filter out the trolls) can provide additional depth to their articles.

Finally, with the huge inflation and diversification of contents, curation has taken an increased importance. People share and recommend blog-posts, music-tracks or videos they like, sometimes adding a line of their own. And facebook pages, twitter accounts, google readers or flipboard devices bring together the various strands of each individual reader’s online engagement, which become part of one’s online image and identity.

The model proposed by the Marco Polo Project rests on the possibilities opened by these transformations. Our platform was conceived with that new paradigm in mind, and therefore does not directly align with models that existed before.  The Marco Polo Project is a cultural magazine offering Chinese contents in Mandarin and translation. The Marco Polo Project is a language learning website. And the Marco Polo Project is a cross-cultural online community.

If the lines between consuming and producing contents are blurred, this applies to translation just as much. Our model embraces this ambiguity fully, by combining the act of reading a text in a foreign language, and that of translating it. Our new website interface will be redesigned to better integrate both types of action – offering bilingual text alignment, a quick change / ‘improve as you go’ widget, and a validation model for existing translations.

Our proposed improvements also include discussion forums, acknowledging that comments and discussion are a full part of online reading. More than simple forums, we plan to develop an advanced track back system connecting comments in a forum thread to a particular spot in a text, and a particular user. In the future, we wish to create new plugins allowing us to import the Chinese comment thread from the original text, and export translations of comments done in other languages to the original, to facilitate a multilingual discussion.

Finally, we believe that individual contents curation is a crucial part of online reading. As a first step in that direction, we plan to create a personal user page, listing all interactions to the website: translations, comments, shares, etc. In the future, we plan to develop plugins that will help users identify texts most suited to their level, vocabulary they want to learn, or subject matter of interest to them. We also plan to create a customized, tablet-compatible magazine where users can subscribe to texts from a certain category, or level of difficulty.

This is what we plan to do – but maybe we’re missing out on something – we’d love to hear what you think of our plans, and where you think we could improve!

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.

Quality control: reflections on the translator as mediator

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

One question that often arises about our model is: “How will we control the quality of our translations?” Behind this question lies a specific fear that we will misinform people by providing erroneous translations, but also a more general anxiety that writing should always be somehow approved and authorized by a  ‘competent expert’.

The short answer I like to give is: “We won’t, but we’ll indicate how adequate a translation is by a colour code.” I’d like to reflect a bit more on the question, and start giving the long answer.

A translator is a mediator between reader and writer, converting a text written in a certain language into a new linguistic artefact which – ideally – will conjure up the same vision and elicit the same reaction in its reader as the original would in those accessing the original.

Some things are lost in translation. Subtle rhythms and echoes, an immediate sense of aesthetic beauty. Subtle patterns of implicit allusions and memories that come from a shared linguistic universe between reader and writer. And concepts unique to a given culture or language, which do not directly translate, or require long-winded explanations. In other words, accessing a text in translation is likely to reduce the sense of immediate comprehension and resonance.

But some things can be gained in translation. Mediated experiences are no less enriching than immediate ones. A translated text combines familiarity – the language is that of the reader, after all – and exoticism – the names, places, experiences, come from a mental universe usually not accessible to the reader. Reading a translation is a mediated way of experiencing the mental landscape of a person living in a different language and culture. And such an experience can have a powerful impact.

Whether translated or not, writing can be misinterpreted. “A wealth of interpretative possibilities” is considered by some as the touchstone of quality literature; others will judge a piece of writing by how clear it is. And some writers voluntarily produce misleading texts, shaping their description of events and facts in order to bring about a certain emotional or moral reaction among readers.

In any case, meaning is constructed through an act of interpretation, which can succeed, or fail. But failure can take two very different forms. One I would call plain failure – when a reader cannot derive any meaning, or satisfactory meaning, from a text, and just leaves it down, frustrated and confused. The other I would call error – when a reader’s interpretation does generate meaning, but that meaning is widely different, or even opposed to, that intended by the writer, or commonly derived by a majority of readers.

Bad writing and bad translation can lead to both. The reader’s competence, attitude and effort will dtermine which occurs. And the role of the ‘publisher’ – in our case, Marco Polo Project – is to both increase the quality of writing and translation in order to improve successful reading experiences, but also influence the reader to avoid both plain interpretation failure, and error.

Our new interface will offer readers the possibility to read texts in bilingual format. By presenting texts in both languages, side by side, we make the mediated nature of the translated version explicit, thereby encouraging a more cautious reading, but also enabling the reader to more fully experience the delightful exoticism of writing originally produced in a radically different code – with characters instead of alphabet – and direct access to a Chinese subjectivity.

A colour code will also mark how advanced each translation is. ‘Doubtful’ passages will appear in a different colours. And users with experience on the platform will ‘validate’ a translation paragraph by paragraph. These methods will not directly increase the quality of the translation, but indicate to the reader where the potential interpretation pitfalls lie, and therefore allow them to either ‘skip’ dangerous passages, to reduce the risk of frustration, or read them with care and suspicion, to reduce the risk of error.

Beside, we will create incentives – in the form of point systems, badges, and systematic engagement – encouraging more expert users to review and improve existing translations, in order to improve the overall quality of our text library.

So the short-long answer to the question “How will we monitor the quality of our translations” is: by making their mediated status more explicit, and ensuring that the design of our reading interface will assist readers in their interpretative endeavour, to minimise the risk or error or frustration, and maximize the delight of accessing the mental world of a Chinese subject.