Gained in translation

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-11 20:15:05

One of Yeeyan’s articles and its original English version: Mastering Linear Algebra in 10 Days.
Photo: Chinese version from version from
One of Yeeyan’s articles and its original English version: Mastering Linear Algebra in 10 Days. Photo: Chinese version from version from

For the growing number of educated and open-minded Chinese Web users seeking new information on how the rest of the world sees China, navigating the vast amount of English language information on the Internet can be a huge challenge. Thousands of volunteer translators, who started out with the aim of practicing their English skills, are inadvertently influencing Chinese readers' perspectives on events happening in China.

These translators, who have different backgrounds and live all over the world, come together in online communities such as or to provide translations of articles on a range of issues, from new scientific discoveries and satirical columns to current events.

Officially founded in 2007, Yeeyan is probably the largest such online community. Founded by three Chinese engineers studying and working in the US, Yeeyan started out as a blog in which they translated articles about technology and business start-ups.

Within three years, the community had become home to tens of thousands of registered users and thousands of volunteer translators. Today, there are over 2,300 active users on Yeeyan, from students to retirees.

Users can find stories to translate and publish them on Yeeyan where other users can comment on the quality of the translation. Community managers also regularly recommend stories for users to translate and pick the best translations to promote on the website.

Users who share the same interests can also start small projects to translate stories of a particular category, for example psychology, or from a particular source, say the New Yorker or the Telegraph. 

Users have shown broad interest from sports to health and business to culture. One of the most popular articles on Yeeyan is "Mastering linear algebra in 10 days", which was taken from a computer scientist's blog.

Immediately after Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Web users translated dozens of articles about the Chinese writer from English language media such as the Guardian, the Atlantic and Spiegel.

There are also translations of articles on the US presidential election and hundreds of thousands of China-related stories.

Yeeyan is by no means the only translation community out there., for instance, is a community for those interested in science and technology.

Tricky balancing act

However, publishing political stories or commentaries can still be a tricky task in China.

In early 2009, after months of preparation, Yeeyan worked with the Guardian to provide Chinese translations for its China-related stories. On November 30, 2009, Yeeyan was temporarily shut down for violating relevant regulations, as it didn't have a permit to publish political content. It reopened over a month later, but the cooperation with the Guardian didn't last.

Zhao Jiamin, cofounder of Yeeyan, said they didn't know which article triggered the shutdown. Today, Yeeyan still isn't allowed to publish political content, as reflected in the categories listed on the website, such as business, technology, culture and society.

Zhao admits that Yeeyan, like any other website in China, also has keyword filters for translations and relies a lot on users' ability to know where the red line is, and not to cross it.

However, it's not entirely clear where that line is. Stories about the trial of Bo Xilai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing who is now being prosecuted for corruption, could still be found on the website.

When the New York Times ran an interview with Bo's ex-wife in October, users at Yeeyan translated the story before the newspaper's own Chinese edition came out.

Zhao said the management team debated at length over whether it was safe to publish the story, and in the end decided it wasn't so sensitive that it might be banned.

Chinese readers interested in political stories could turn to Yizhe (which literally means "translators"), which is basically a blog that translates English language news articles and commentaries into Chinese.

The founders of Yizhe were Yeeyan users who sometimes couldn't get the stories published on Yeeyan due to their sensitive nature. So, in 2009, they started the new platform.

In an email interview, translators from Yizhe, who asked to be collectively identified as Xiaomi, said that they are a loose group of translators scattered all over the world who have never met in person. "What brought us together is the spirit of volunteering and the motivation of sharing information, translated and unedited," said Xiaomi.

On their website, they describe themselves as devoted to providing the latest and most in-depth information about China and the world.

Xiaomi said that the founders have left Yizhe and that they didn't know the exact number of translators contributing to their blog.  Since it's an open platform, anyone can join them and submit their own translations, and can leave at any time.

Still, it seems the site has a regular and steady input of translations, averaging two or three articles a day. Between December 2009 and November 2012, Yizhe posted over 2,550 articles translated from sources such as the New York Times, BBC, and Al Jazeera.

Its main blog site, which is inaccessible without bypassing the Great Firewall, has close to 1.3 million visits from around the world. Its Twitter account has over 26,000 followers.

Yizhe also makes its translations available to audiences on the inside of the Great Firewall through email subscriptions and RSS feeds.

Since any user can choose a story and send in a translation, Xiaomi said they don't know what the next article is going to be about.

It seems that Yizhe has never shied away from what are usually perceived as sensitive political or social issues. While the blog does cover stories on business and technology, a major part is made up of news articles about China's political and social issues. Its front page at the moment features a series of reports and commentaries from different media on the 18th Congress of the CPC, former Party Secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai and his erstwhile right-hand man Wang Lijun, and accounts of Tibetan self-immolation.

Dealing with sensitive topics doesn't seem to be a concern for these volunteer translators. Xiaomi said that there has never been a list of so-called "sensitive topics," and different people certainly don't agree on what might constitute a sensitive topic.

Money matters

Making money isn't a concern for Yizhe. They experimented with a "pay to read" system for a while, but admit that it has not been successful.

In 2009, Yeeyan started to make money, but is still far from turning a profit. Yeeyan has been experimenting with e-book publishing, and started by tapping into open resources such as the Gutenberg project. It is also cooperating with conventional publishers for copyrighted books.

With its large pool of translators, Yeeyan can provide translations of books in a very short period of time using a model often referred to as crowd-sourcing. 

When Steve Jobs: A Biography was published in October 2011, the Chinese edition hit the shelves at almost the same time. The book had been translated by five volunteers at Yeeyan in about 20 days. 

More often than not, Yeeyan will buy the copyright from publishers, find translators from its community and contact domestic publishers to publish the Chinese edition. With every book, Yeeyan signs an agreement with the translators, promising them a cut of the royalties.

While many of the translated books found in bookstores focus heavily on business or success stories, Zhao said they don't choose the most popular, best-selling English books. With a background of working in Silicon Valley, Zhao believes in the power of technology and its impact on human society. He often chooses the more serious-minded books that embody the point where technology meets humanism.

The first translated book they published was Inside Facebook. In late 2010, the community users translated Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and The Economic World by Kevin Kelly.

To date, Yeeyan has cooperated with domestic publishers on over 20 copyrighted books.

When it comes to news articles, copyright is always a potential issue, especially as many international media outlets, such as Reuters, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, have launched their own Chinese websites that publish translated stories and Chinese articles written for those websites. Most recently, in June, the New York Times introduced its online Chinese language edition.

Xiaomi said if they know there is an official Chinese version of a story, they won't translate the article.  They are also very clear in noting that their translations are for non-commercial uses and translated for studying and sharing purposes only.

Zhao said Yeeyan also avoids working on stories that are translated on their official websites, and if a user chooses a story from these media outlets, they will try to persuade the users to choose a different article.

In October 2010, some users translated a column from the Wall Street Journal without authorization and the chief editor of the Chinese website openly objected on his microblog. Yeeyan later apologized and deleted the translation.

Road ahead

Despite the international media's expansion in China and the growing number of English-reading Chinese, Zhao believes there's still a lot they can do. "There's still a vast world of information out there to be explored," he said.

One translator, who gives his name as Hank, is based in Saudi Arabia and only joined Yeeyan for a week. "Not everyone can get the knowledge they need from the English language information out there and the entire community could help sift through all that and select," said Hank.

Many users say they join Yeeyan because of their interest in English or translation and see it as a learning platform.

But these translations serve more than just language learning purposes. On their blog, Yizhe explain that they understand translators are not just people who can put one language into another, but are a community that is actively engaged in communicating, sharing and passing along ideas.

The fact that such websites exist and are popular shows the need for information from outside China, said Zhao, who hopes the new ideas they bring from the English-speaking world can gradually influence the country.

"It's impossible to influence everyone at the same time, and we only hope to reach well-educated, open-minded audiences first and hopefully reach more people over time," said Zhao.

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