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Qatar: Better Public Diplomacy Through Online Translation

A new online project aims to bring American and Qatari teenagers together through crowdsourced translation exercises that could have ramifications for public diplomacy.

YALLAH

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The Clinton Global Initiative and Qatar
Foundation International (QFI) have a unique idea for bridging the
American-Arabic cultural gap: An online project aimed at bringing American and Qatari teenagers together through crowdsourced
translation exercises.

Entitled YALLAH (Youth Allied to Learn,
Lead and Help), the program launched on October 1 with a
crowdsourced website open to more
than 150 participants, all teenage alumni of the QFI’s prior exchange, culture and study abroad programs. Non-profits, of course, love acronyms for
their programs; “yallah” means “let’s go” or “hurry up”
in Arabic.

On the website, QFI alumni participate
in both independent and moderator-steered conversations on cultural
topics, their encounters with each other in Qatar and the United
States, their societies and current news. But the most interesting
factor is how they interact with each other — each side writes in
their native language and site participants translate their mutual conversations through machine-aided crowdsourcing.

San Francisco-based non-profit Meedan
is responsible for the translation mechanism. The idea is quite
simple: English and Arabic writing are automatically translated into
the other respective language via computer. Once the automatic
translation is complete, site participants restructure the
translation for coherence and readability. Arabic is an infamously
hard language
for machine translation into English due to its
complex morphology, stem system and sentence structures that vary
significantly from Indo-European tongues.

Meedan is best known for their news
sharing project
, where professional journalists and academians
translate articles from English-language and Arabic-language
publications for each other. According to Meedan CEO Ed Bice, YALLAH
uses the same translation mechanism as the main Meedan site. The
Clinton Initiative also helped connect QFI with TakingIT
Global
, a Toronto-based “social networking site for
socially-engaged youth leaders” that is providing eseminar
services.

QFI executive director Maggie Mitchell
Salem noted that the project is running on the American side with a
high level of autonomy and that a translation project for teenagers
was chosen because, in her words, “interactions between adults made
the kids (ex-exchange participants) think they could do better.”
The YALLAH project was the
brainchild
of two QFI exchange alumni, Damon Mallory and Fahad
al-Nahdi. According to QFI, Mallory and al-Nahdi approached the
organization with a proposal shortly after participating in a Spring
2010 program and secured funding several months later.

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QFI, which funds YALLAH, is headed by Sheikh Jassim Bin Abdulaziz Bin Jassim al-Thani. Al-Thani is a member of the Qatari royal family in his thirties best known as as a member of the supervisory board of carmakers Porsche. QFI’s board includes Citigroup chairman emeritus Sandy Weill and Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian. Although independent of the Qatar government, QFI has numerous ties to the emirate’s power structure.

The Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton, nominated YALLAH as one of their 2010 Commitments to Action. While no funding is provided by Clinton, the Initiative provides logistical support and monitors the benchmarks of nominees.

For QFI and the Qatari government, the
program is a stroke of public diplomacy genius. Qatar is a small
emirate surrounded by much larger neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and
Iran. Qatari foreign policy has consisted of walking
on eggshells
between American and Iranian interests, while
attempting to assert the country’s presence on the international
stage.

The Qatar Foundation, QFI’s founding donor, helped arrange for Education
City
, a massive collection of overseas campuses for American
universities including Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon, to open in
Doha. Most importantly, Qatar is the home of the Al Jazeera
television network. Al Jazeera maintains unclear business and
ideological ties to the Qatari government and royal family, and has
played a major part in Qatari public diplomacy.

Projects such as YALLAH also indicate
new paths for public diplomacy through social media. Maintaining a
message board, offering a translation mechanism and instituting
benchmarks to keep American and Qatari teens talking costs QFI
relatively little. Participants on both sides come from demographics
that are likely to be future influencers: it is not every American
teenager who is able to travel to Qatar and not every resident of
Qatar can travel to America.

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For QFI, apart from the very desirable
philanthropic benefits, it means a low-cost way of connecting future
American and Qatari influencers with each other. That’s not a bad
public diplomacy idea at all.

[Image courtesy Qatar Foundation International]

Clarification, October 15, 2010: Education City was the initiative of the Qatar Foundation, the founding donor of Qatar Foundation International.