Global Age Intellectuals must understand the Chinese tradition – Why Marco Polo Project #1

This post opens a series about the factors motivating us to run the Marco Polo Project. Please join in the conversation, and tell us why you think the Marco Polo Project should exist. 

To qualify as a respected intellectual in Continental Europe, you must know the core languages of the Great European Tradition: French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. You’re not expected to join in spontaneous conversations with no trace of accent, of course, but know enough of each language to read its literature in the text, or at least appreciate its original flavour when reading a translation. And reading them you must: Moliere, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Cervantes, Virigil and Homer are all part of a multilingual tradition in constant dialogue, and make full sense only through their complex relationship with each other.

Up until recently, reading these languages was enough – although respected intellectuals from smaller European countries might throw their own language into the mix, and add colour to the dialogue. Meanwhile, ‘Oriental’ languages were a niche specialty, only marginally more relevant to the conversations of the Great European Tradition than, say, Nahuatl or Quechua. Sanskrit and Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, as close neighbours, peaked a timid glance over the fence. Mandarin was far beyond the pale.

But things have changed. Under the combined effects of globalisation and the rise of Asia, it is likely that Mandarin will feature as part of the linguistic panoply for aspiring intellectuals in Europe and globally. Those ignorant of things Chinese will no longer find themselves in a position to speak with universal authority. This is radically new, this is probably positive, and this is surely challenging. The European traditions have conducted their dialogue for centuries – translation and multi-lingualism is at the core of the European Project. But will this project integrate a language and tradition so long distant and separate?

We believe in a world where cultural and intellectual leaders are multi-lingual, and their thinking is informed by a deep understanding of multiple traditions. We believe that today’s world involves a conversation between the Chinese and European traditions. And our goal for developing this project is to support the great learning effort necessary for this important conversation to take place, and become a matter-of-fact.


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.

Going Oral

Saturday morning was our first production meeting for a planned series of podcasts, in partnership with Quick Chat Productions. Marco Polo Project is going oral! Each month, we plan to release one podcast with a selection of three texts from the Marco Polo Project website, in Chinese and English. My friend Nghi – founder of Quick Chat – first suggested the project, and it’s now starting, with the voices of Chantal Leptos and Yixuan Xu for the first batch.

Making podcasts will have three benefits for us.

It will open up a new audience. Some people enjoy listening to stories or essays in the form of podcasts as they walk, ride or drive. They will now be able to listen to contemporary Chinese voices, in translation.

It will make our contents more accessible. People with vision impediments, or who find reading online a strain on their eyes, will now be able to access the contents we provide in a format accessible to them.

It will increase our appeal to language learners, by allowing them to train both their listening and reading skills, in various ways. Many learners of Mandarin are foreigners who lived or live in China. Their listening and speaking skills are generally quite good, but they have poor reading skills. The Chinese podcast will allow them to ‘translate as they listen’, and train their translation/interpreting skills, or at least keep up their Mandarin in an active way. It will also allow them to match sound with character – using the original text as transcript – and therefore improve their reading capability. For Chinese speakers, these podcasts will allow them to improve their English listening skills, using the Chinese original as subtitles.

Month by month, we will build up a library of podcasts, and make them available on our website – building up a precious corpus for learners and teachers to use.

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

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.

Quick reading, slow reading

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

One of our proposed new features on the Marco Polo Project website is a bilingual display system – by clicking on a simple button, readers will be able to see the text in two columns, Chinese on the right, translation on the left, with paragraph alignment. This will not only put forward the mediated nature of the translation (see our previous post on ‘the translator as mediator’), but also give readers the possibility to better ‘quick read’.

There are two main ways of learning a language by reading. One is to practice very slow and careful reading – explore the structure of sentence after sentence, in depth, unpacking each grammatical difficulty and searching every word in the dictionary, until all nuances of meaning become crystal clear. That is the kind of work required for advanced, high quality translation.

But there is another very different way of reading a text in a language you don’t really know: quick reading, skimming over the surface, getting the gist instead of nuances, and looking for speed over precision.

Each form of practice has its benefits. Slow reading will solidify syntactic knowledge, add new words to the vocab list, and increase comprehension of nuances. It will fix in the brain ‘typical’ patterns that can be copied or varied upon. Quick reading will increase overall confidence and intuition. It will rarely develop new knowledge, but solidify what is already known.

The capacity to use simple words and structures rightaway, the capacity to not focus on the self-evident, is a great part of language fluency. Fluency in a foreign language is about more than just understanding – it’s about understanding as you go. Like in sport, music, dance, you must keep up the rhythm.

This comes through repeated practice – with failure, or loss but at speed. Bilingual reading is a way to more easily skim over a text in a foreign language. The eye can shift from original to translation, helping identify the meaning of unknown characters, or perceive the structure of a sentence. This is not ‘lazy work’, this is a smart understanding of motivation. If the task is too hard, not giving up requires a lot of effort – and who will sustain that level of demand over the long term. If we can make the task a little simpler, then it will not be so demanding, and sustained effort become more likely – with success, in turn, increasing.

Beside, if people quick read an article, they still learn more about China, and that’s a good thing, don’t you think?

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

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.


On gamification – pozible campaign

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

We’re proposing to ‘gamify’ the Marco Polo Project. ‘Gamify’ simply means that an activity is made more like a game by changing the process design, in order to increase engagement – and enjoyment – by the participants. To put it simply, if it’s fun, people will more willingly do it.

This proposal responds to one particular difficulty which feedback from users has outlined:

  •  On the one end, we’ve had consistent positive feedback on our selection from readers – the material we select is rich, diverse, and stimulating.
  • On the other end, we’ve had consistent negative feedback on our selection from potential translators – that our texts are long and difficult.

But of course, translators are also readers – and pieces using under 1000 characters are rarely rich and stimulating. Beside, learners tend to underestimate their own competence – but can work on difficult and complex material when they gain the confidence.

So our proposal to gamify the translation process is a way to address this difficulty: re-design our interface in a way that will encourage our translators to get over the hump, and tackle writing they find long and difficult. Compensate the perceived difficulty of the contents by interface  usability.

Partly, this means eliminating any frustration around inadequate design – all the little bugs that make users’ life that much more difficult. But it also means developing new features that allows translators to better measure progress – as progress tracking has been shown to be the key factor in motivation.

This will occur at two levels.

We will increase user motivation by better measuring the progress of each translation:

  • We will insert a progress bar, indicating the percentage of the text left to translate.
  • We will insert a lateral colour bar indicating  the translation status of each paragraph.
  • We will allow users to validate a translation paragraph by paragraph, breaking down the daunting task of translating a full text into smaller, manageable sub-components.

We will increase user motivation by better measuring personal progress on the website:

  • We will create a personalised profile page where translators can see the list of all their interaction with the website.
  • We will develop a points and badge system, introducing an element of competition, and allowing them to gain motivation by working towards a ‘badge’.
  • The proposed system will reward various users for different types of interaction – submitting, translating, reviewing, or contributing to forums.

We believe that these changes will radically improve the user experience, leading to better learning outcomes for translators, as well as more translations completed – and therefore more material available for readers.

I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the gamification course on ( by Kevin Werbach, and would strongly encourage everyone to have a look.