Interview with Julien Leyre from Marco Polo Project

In Uncategorized by Skritter

author photoI first stumbled upon Marco Polo Project (MPP from here on in) a little over a year ago and knew instantly that I would be spending lots of time on the site in the future. If the tagline “read and translate new writing from China” doesn’t have you intrigued, perhaps some of the articles featured on the main page might help do the trick: 

      MPP, a crowd-sourced translation site that aims to share Chinese content with the rest of the world, is the brain child of founder and translator Julien Leyre, who runs the .org with the help of a small team of developers, translators, and supporters from all over the globe. Julien, a French polyglot (he speaks or has studied: French, German, English, Ancient Greek, Latin, Modern Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Chinese and more!) living in Melbourne, Australia started MPP in November of 2011 with a group of like minded individuals, and has been running the site and helping to translate the growing number of blogs posts, essays, and editorials ever since.

      I’m not quite sure how it happened, but fate connected Julien and I months ago via Twitter, Skype or something and we’ve been sharing ideas, and messaging back and forth ever since. After hearing more about his own experience learning Chinese and creating MPP I’ve been wanting to share his story with Skritter readers. At the end of April we finally were able to make it happen. The following are the highlights of our hour and a half interview. 

      I hope you all enjoy! 

      Where did the inspiration to create MPP come from? 

      “When I arrived (in Melbourne) I was fascinated by this multi-cultural city, which was really a kind of East meets West place. There’s a very strong European influence, you see not only the British heritage, but also Italian, Greek, Eastern European, French etc., but there’s also a very strong Asian influence, especially a Chinese influence… and so I thought, this would be an amazing place to build a great center for translation dialogue, kind of bring together the European and Asian tradition. And especially now that Asia is rising, China is rising… Melbourne would be an amazing place to bring Chinese literature to Westerners… In 2010 I was working for the government and looking at E-Government models, and looking at ways of delivering government services using the Internet and peer-to-peer models. I went on a Summer study trip to Tianjin in 2010 and the two just kind of fused in my mind. Why not build a collaborative translation platform?”

      Where do authors and articles featured on MPP come from?

      The first articles on MPP we’re admittedly quite selfish at first, featuring stuff that Julien wanted to read. Rather than just find articles online, however, he took a round about approach and built a website that would (eventually) find great stuff for him! The origins of the content featured on MPP come from four major sources (for a detailed list check link). Three of the sites are, according to Julien, “the Chinese equivalent of the Huffington Post… so blog aggregators.” The articles are usually re-posts from things published in magazines, newspapers or online by Chinese intellectuals, independent journalists etc. After that, the small team at MPP searches for articles that are “relatively easy to translate, quite original, and would appeal to an international audience.” 

      The fourth source is 豆瓣 (Douban), a “Chinese mix between MySpace and Facebook… the social networking platform where the cool upper-middle-class-urban-Chinese hipsters like to hang out and post film reviews, book reviews, art reviews and write journals” says Julien. With over 500 articles now on MPP, they’re starting to get a sense of which authors to follow and and who consistently posts interesting stuff that readers will enjoy. 

      How many translators does the site have?

      Looking at articles on the site, it seems like Julien has been keeping himself busy, but he’s not the only one providing multi-lingual content (the site features articles in English, French, and Spanish). 

      There have been 40 or 50 people that have been contributed to Marco Polo Project at some stage. Some of them have done half a text, some of them have done one or two. But I’ve been doing the bulk of the work translating, partly to pump up the machine, but also party because the model is such that people enjoy reading and don’t necessarily take the time to translate. But now we’re actually working on collaboration workshops in Melbourne where I bring together people from China,Taiwan and Malaysia etc. and people from here, put them at tables and every team works on one or two paragraphs… and we put them together and then I put it up.

      These meetups have brought together a core of people working on applied professional translation; usually a mix of native English and Chinese speakers, who work together on an individual text at every event meetup. 

      Does one need any previous translation experience, or language credentials to contribute?

      Julien’s own background is in education. He taught English and linguistics at Institut Catholique de Paris and Paris-Sorbonne University, but you don’t need to have any pervious experience to join in on the fun. MPP is actually about trying to build motivation and confidence in a fun environment where you’re translating things you’re actually interested in. As he said in the interview, “if you know 1500 characters, you know a bit of Chinese, go ahead… you can start translating now!”

      Articles on MPP have a basic hardness rating that is given internally by the editorial team, but they’re talking with some other sites and hoping to be able to find an even better system for proving articles that fit more closely with a user’s level. Even if you’re not ready to translate, that doesn’t mean that MPP isn’t a great resource for finding interesting articles that are worth reading. Additionally, previously translated articles can be read bilingually, bridging gaps between two languages and creating deeper understanding and meaning.
      For Julien, translation is actually the practice of very close reading. When you translate a text “you have to precisely understand the meaning of every sentence in the text. Both in terms of semantics and in terms of how the words work together and how the language operates.” Translation will no doubt make you a better reader and a better interpreter no matter what your level.   

      After all this translation your Chinese must be really good!
      You wouldn’t know it by looking at the site, but Julien’s Chinese has come a very long way since first starting the site in 2011. In fact, when he first started the site he was “absolutely unable to select the articles, and had no idea what he was doing.” He started studying Chinese six years ago when he moved to Australia, but he had a strong background in language and translation. Between self-study, language exchange, and living in Tianjin he has certainly come a long way!  

      How long does it take to translate a typical article?

      Every article is going to have its own unique challenges, but first starting out it could take anywhere from 6-10 hours for Julien to translate a single article, but now it’s anywhere from 3-6 hours on average. The big factor, he says, is the length of the article, but hopefully new features that are being built into the site (see the end of questions for more info) will help make this less of an issue for others wanting to join in on the fun. 
      Interviews go faster because “transcribed oral language tends to be easier to translate,” but article structure can be a big factor as well. With a solid outline its much easier to find the flow. The first sentence of every paragraph is also a solid indicator. Being able to read and easily understand the first few sentences is a good indication of relatively difficulty overall.  

      What kind of tools do you use?
      Crazy English signs and poorly translated restaurant menus might be a strong indication of just how long we’ll be waiting before machine translation takes over, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t help us mere mortals do some of the work. The number one tool for Julien is actually Google Translate. As he said in the interview: 

      I translate quickly… and the reason is because I use Google Translate, which I absolutely adore. It’s got very bad press, people hate it, it’s very fashionable to bash it… I think it’s an amazing tool. The way I translate is take a paragraph and pop it into Google Translate… about 1/3 or it is perfect translation, 1/3 is okay translation that needs to be re-framed, and 1/3 makes absolutely no sense at all… When you’re a machine, or when you don’t know any Chinese and pop something into Google Translate it’s terrible because you don’t know what makes sense and what doesn’t, but if you know enough Chinese you’re immediately able to see what works and what doesn’t. So 1/3 of your work is already done for you! One third of your work is almost done because the meaning is almost there… and so you’re no longer faced with ‘this task is infinite and really long,’ and so you gain speed and confidence.

      But Google Translate isn’t only for full bodies of text. In fact, another great trick is “jumping lines” (hitting Shift of Return) at punctuation points or grammatical words (like 是), which keeps Google from translating the entire sentence and instead turns it into a character or single word dictionary. This is great for keeping all of your work on a single page and ultimately helps save lots of time.

      Any tips for people who would like to start translating?

      The difficulty doesn’t come from translating as such, but rather the psychology of translating, or “how to not give up.” Finding motivating factors is going to be a much bigger influence for people who are just starting out. If a sentence is too hard, “just skip it and start with the easy part,” says Julien. And since the site is crowd-sourced translation, you can always tweet the really hard stuff by using #MPPolo and find other users who are willing to lend a hand.

      Another great tip to is to try and first get a feel for an article by translating the first sentence of every paragraph. Finish that and you’ll have a great idea of where the article is headed and what it’s about. A new paragraph by paragraph translation interface, due to come out in the next month or so, should also make the task less daunting for aspiring translators.

      For more tips and tricks, check the dedicated page on the Marco Polo Project site.  

      Any favorite or must-read articles on your site?

      Once you’ve made your way over to MPP I’m sure you’ll be able to find tons of great articles that fit your personal interests, but here are three articles that Julien highly recommends. Head over and take a look!

      1. There’s a void called the countryside
      2. The tears of animals 
      3. Fragments of Sanlitun
      What’s the future look like for Marco Polo Project?

      There are some big plans and big improvements coming down the road for MPP: user profiles, badges (and other gamification elements), better usability, and new languages (German and Italian) just to name a few. Also, with many more readers than translators on MPP the goal is now to get more people helping out. Hopefully the new translation style will help make that a reality.  

       Up until know you were translating a whole text… and people felt a little bit overwhelmed… but now we’ve changed it so you will be able to edit one paragraph so now the content that you’re working on is much more manageable… just five lines of Chinese! 

      The updates all sound like they’re going to make MPP an ever better and more fun user experience. As for translating five lines of Chinese rather than an entire text… who doesn’t have time to try that at least once? A huge thanks to Julien for taking time out to conduct the interview, and for building such a great cultural and linguistic resource. For those who are interested in more information be sure to check the links below.

      Parter Website: Language Connection 
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