• 02.08.12

Tearing Down Language Barriers By Crowdsourcing Subtitles

There are important events being documented every second on the Internet, but only a select few can understand them. Want to know what’s happening in Syria? Perhaps Universal Subtitles can help enlighten you.

Tearing Down Language Barriers By Crowdsourcing Subtitles

Despite a global media in hundreds of languages, we rarely listen to voices that speak in one different from our own. That’s kept our news–and sometimes our views–virtually incomprehensible to one another.


Universal Subtitles aims to crack the language barrier by crowdsourcing subtitles for the world’s content, and opening up new channels of direct global communication. The firm has translated videos from the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, the Arab Spring, Iran’s version of The Daily Show, Parazit on Voice of America, and the online educational resource Khan Academy.

Their success is, well, translating into a small but growing global readership. “We’ve been amazed at how quickly videos can get translated by communities and reach a very high level of quality,” writes Nicholas Reville by email who co-founded the Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF) which created Universal Subtitles.

“When you can watch someone speaking in their own language, it gives you a view into their culture that you can’t get otherwise.  It’s a type of direct, visual, emotional communication across time and space.”  

During the Arab Spring, videos from across Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere were translated by the crowd from Arabic into English and Chinese, while President Obama’s speech on Libya made it into French and Norwegian. A protester in Syria, where media coverage has been sporadic at best, offered a direct appeal in one video: “In these days we make demonstrations to claim our rights, our justice, our freedom,” he says. “[The government] says … we are terrorists, and that we want to make an Islamic republic here. I say it’s a big lie, it’s a big lie.”

It is all powered by volunteers who translate videos that can be posted by anyone. Much as Wikipedia benefits from those who keep revising and improving entries, subtitles “tend to reach a very high level (above standard professional quality in many cases),” says Reville. Organizations can even set up translation teams with volunteers who sign off on each other’s work so that more than one person reviews and approves it.  “Generally, people volunteer on content they care about–they come to volunteer for specific videos or shows,” says Reville. “It’s one of the rare ways that someone can volunteer online in a meaningful way.”

The service isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s still in alpha tests. Although Universal Subtitles has intuitive interfaces and powerful tools, many of the videos still lack context (or comments) so it’s difficult to understand where many originated, and their significance. But that should change as the platform is improved and more volunteers join the service (you can help out as developer, tester, or translator here). Although Universal Subtitles has been running on grants from news foundations, it’s about to go global with an earned revenue model for companies and organizations to translate their content.

“We are really hitting an amazing liftoff moment, with so much new interest and activity–we’re growing fast!” writes Reville. “It’s exciting.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.