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July 27 2011

17:30

NYTimes.com’s most looked-up words for 2011: Even more morose than last year’s list

One of the cooler-but-lesser-known functions of NYTimes.com is its word “look up” feature: Double-click on any word in the text of an article — insouciance, say, or omerta — and a little question mark will pop up. Click the question mark, and you’ll get a definition of the highlighted word directly from the American Heritage Dictionary. Ooooh!

Since 2009, the Times’ analytics department has been tracking the words that its users look up via the feature; this week, it released results for the first half-and-change of 2011. And they are…multisyllabic. And anything but perfunctory.

They are also pretty…depressing. Though journalism, as an institution, isn’t especially renowned for its sunny outlook on the world, it’s still remarkable how pessimistic and generally morose (hubris! feckless! dyspeptic!) the looked-up words tend to be. While they’re nothing, of course, like a representative sample of all the words used in the Times — they don’t account for NYT blog posts, for one thing, but mostly they represent only the words that have confused people and/or sparked their interest enough to get people to click on them — the negativity here is noteworthy nonetheless. If a good newspaper is a cultural product, a nation talking to itself and all that, then the preponderance of profligacy and hauteur and duplicity and blasphemy that populate the list don’t bode terribly well for our collective conversation. If some future civilization were to come across the Times list and assume it’s representative of The Times We Live In, they’d probably feel sorry for us. Or, you know, schadenfreudically avuncular.

The negativity is a trend, actually; Josh pointed out the same thing for last year’s list. It’s worth noting, too, the tension that the words represent: the classic disconnect between respecting readers’ intelligence by challenging it…and giving them a pleasant reading experience. The line between education and pretension — for the Times, in particular, which aspires to an intellectualism that is, first and foremost, accessible — is a thin one. “As always, we should remember that our readers are harried and generally turn to us for news, not SAT prep,” Corbett notes. At the same time, though, as one commenter put it, “This is why I love this newspaper: It not only dispenses the news, it keeps me on my toes and prods me to keep my literary silverware polished and my linguistic cutlery honed. :-D”

Anyway, we’ve listed the looked-up words on a spreadsheet, above, if you want to play around with the set. (A couple notes on the data: As in previous years, the Times’ blogs, among other parts of the site, aren’t counted in these data. And the data account for word-lookups on NYTimes.com, not the Times’ various apps. Plus, Corbett notes, “This year, we arranged the list by how many times a word was looked up per use, rather than by total number of look-ups. That highlights the most baffling words of all.”) If you notice anything interesting about them, let us know.

July 01 2011

16:00

The revolution will be translated: Global Voices’ citizen-powered site experiments with English-second

When Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon created Global Voices in 2004, English was the language of the blogosphere.

“A lot of the people who were using weblogs were writing in English even if it wasn’t their first language,” Zuckerman said. “You would see top Arabic bloggers writing first and foremost in English because they wanted that global audience.”

So Global Voices — a news site about places where English isn’t spoken — was built on English. The idea is that it’s an efficient “bridge language,” reaching a larger potential audience: More translators can do English to Swahili than, say, Tagalog to Swahili.

The site was opened up to translators in 2007 under Project Lingua — a movement that sprang up from the community — but GV still required that all original content be composed in English.

The problem with that workflow? Most of GV’s bloggers don’t speak English as a first language. “People started saying, ‘Look, I work for GV Français, and I write much better in French than I do in English. Why should I have to write in English first and then in French?’” Zuckerman said.

So Global Voices is experimenting with a decentralized, English-second workflow for the first time in its history. Paula Góes, the site’s multilingual editor, is leading the transition.

“The Internet has made the world much, much smaller, but language is still probably the only barrier that really makes it difficult for people to understand each other,” said Góes.

Góes is helping Global Voices build a (virtual) multilingual newsroom, with bloggers and editors assigned to regions and languages. If breaking news happens in South America, a blogger on the ground can choose to write in Spanish first. “It’s obviously much easier for them to write in their own language,” Góes said. “It takes less time for them, too. We’re able to get their stories out there quicker.” The goal is stories that are richer, more nuanced, more genuine. And it opens Global Voices to much wider pool of would-be volunteers.

Paula Góes, Global Voices Multilingual Editor

It all sounds kind of obvious, Zuckerman said — why not let people write in their first language? — but the translations pose a lot of challenges for the organization.

“At the end of the day, everything that ends up on Global Voices in any language is the responsibility of our managing editor, Solana Larsen. And Solana speaks five languages, but she doesn’t speak 30,” Zuckerman told me. “The question became, if we start writing in Chinese first, which Solana does not speak, how can she be responsible for what comes out?”

There was a lot of resistance to decentralization, at least at first. While GV is seen as a pillar of open, citizen-powered media, Zuckerman noted, it’s hardly lawless. “We always have to remind people that we have boatloads of editors. We are a heavily, heavily edited platform,” he said.

“We don’t want to do this in a way that people say, ‘Oh yeah, that Spanish Global Voices, that’s much further to the left than GV is’…. That would be a sign that we’re doing it wrong.” Under the new model, each language site is trusted to enforce its own editorial standards.

So far, the experiment has paid off richly. For example: “Our francophone and Africa coverage had been pretty poor. It was not our strongest section,” Zuckerman said. “It’s gotten better by leaps and bounds since we’ve done this. The francophone West Africans who are part of our community are just much more comfortable writing in French. They write more and they write better.”

To continue the improvement, Góes’ job is to find efficiencies in translation, study metrics, help define best practices, figure out what works. The ultimate goal is to reach more readers in more countries — and English still plays an essential role. All stories are translated to English first, as a rule, but that can take half an hour, a day, two days. “It depends on the urgency or the resources we have,” Góes said.

One helpful thing: Translators for individual language sites can volunteer to take on a story. “We don’t really tell people to translate anything,” Góes said. “It’s completely up to the community. We trust that they will know what posts will be more interesting to their own readers or more important to show in their countries.”

Translators are every bit as much journalists as the writers, because good translation requires an appreciation for context. How do you translate an article about female genital mutilation into Malagasy, for example, when the concept is foreign to an audience in Madagascar? And then there are links, which point to resources outside of the site’s control — resources that will most likely be in a language that’s different than the one spoken by a story’s intended audience. Translators at Global Voices follow each link to try to find relevant alternatives. Google Translate can’t do all that. (Nor does it cover all the languages GV does.)

“If you really want to understand a culture, have a deep understanding about culture, and you don’t speak the language, you cannot really rely on Google Translate,” Góes said. “How would you be able to understand the situation in Syria through Google Translate? I would’t trust Google to let me know about the world.”

Global Voices is like the Red Cross in that the leadership team is paid, but most of the staff volunteers. That means the quality of a language site depends on the time, talent, and interest of unpaid people. (Góes reminded me that her staff is always looking for volunteers. She recently put up an FAQ page for would-be translators.)

I had to ask, what does motivate people to do all this work for free?

“Two things,” Góes said. “One is learning, because when you translate about any other country in the world, you learn so much about it. You have to do research. It’s really, really exciting. I think it’s quite easy to get hooked to.

The other thing? “People think it’s important to bring perspectives into their languages, present them to their friends who can’t speak English in a way that’s not biased.”

Photo of Paula Góes by David Sasaki used under a Creative Commons license

October 14 2010

03:20

Try to keep up with these words…

..thanks to Peg Achterman for turning me onto this video – Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language. Wow.

…and worth watching more than once.


November 23 2009

12:32

WiserTongues: WiserEarth goes Multi-lingual

Do you speak a language that isn't English?  Do you have a passion for multi-lingual social justice?  If so (or even if not) this is the opportunity for you.

Wiser Earth is a nonprofit and social justice community that includes members from around the world.  However, they are now seeking to expand their resources to support the huge number of non-English speakers who use to WiserEarth so they can become a more effective global resource.  They hope to encourage their members to use WiserEarth in their own language.  How to make this happen?  Well, the good news is, you can help!

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