The Limits of Translation

The last of Facebook’s 10 Guiding Principles is that the “service should transcend geographic and national boundaries and be available to everyone in the world.”

Since anywhere between 93% and 96% of the world’s people do not know English, FB’s wish to be the world’s social network has sparked its interest in translation. FB’s translation tool, described by David Kirkpatrick in The Facebook Effect (2010) as “among the company’s greatest product innovations (Kindle ed. 4794)” launched in 2008, and, according to Kirkpatrick, operated in 75 languages as of 2010.

The particular innovation that Kirkpatrick describes is that FB’s translation is grass roots: “Rather than ask its own employees or contractors to spend precious years translating the site’s three hundred thousand words and phrases into numerous other languages, Facebook turned the task over to the crowd and found an enormous amount of wisdom there”(Kindle ed. 4794).

So when I open up my Slovak language FB, I can load a translation app which is designed to permit me or any other Slovak language users to translate the English that we encounter. Translations are collected and then arranged in a list to be voted on by a translation team consisting of FB users who are native speakers of Slovak (how are these claims to native language proficiency verified?). Translation thus speeds along. Kirkpatrick points out that the French version was completed by 4,000 users in less than two days (Kindle ed. 4802).

Kirkpatrick observes that in this way “adding new languages . . . costs Facebook virtually nothing”(Kindle ed. 4802). He goes on to give the impression that the crowd of translators can thus assert their own particular ingenuity to creatively echo FB’s new modes of communication, such as poking.

Kirkpatrick quotes Zuckerberg commenting on his hands off approach: “I’m proud that I wasn’t even involved. . . . This is what you hope for when you’re building an organization . . . . That there will be people who will just build things that fit so well with the values of the company without you even having to say anything.”(Kindle ed. 4809)

Ah yes, the values of the company: one world, what does this mean in terms of the multi-form world of human languages?

Clicking on the languages icon in the low left corner of the screen, I count 77 languages available, which includes such options as Canadian French, two versions of Portuguese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and English written upside down or in “Pirate” form (“What be troublin’ ye?”). However, when I scroll through these languages, I see that 32 are still in “beta” form—a trial run anticipating full-release at a later date.

Anyhow, that still leaves 45 languages to choose from. I begin to explore FB, heading for the “help” function. But clicking on icons in “help”, I’m greeted with instructions in English, along with a list of alternative languages to address this lack of coverage of Slovak: 24 alternatives other than Slovak for help with “registration,” 14 others for “networks,” 4 for “payment terms” . . . .

Checking FB’s platform policies, promotion guidelines, copyright, intellectual properties, page terms, and rights and privileges pages, there are no alternative languages listed for the English presentation that is provided. Kirkpatrick writes that in 2010 that FB had 300,000 words of content. The translation application lists that now 126, 478 of those words and phrases have been translated into Slovak. It is interesting that, by some magic of arithmetic, my translation application proclaims that this ratio of 126,478 to 300,000 translates to “96% complete.”

Odder still, is the headline that greets the user upon opening the translation app:

“The translation of Slovak is now complete.”