Crowdsource the Translation

PREVIOUSLY: The Endangered Cultures List

The Seed Company is the advance guard of scripture translation. Their strategy is specially designed to jump-start the process by finding nationals to lead the work and prioritizing the translation of certain passages. It’s quite remarkable, really.

But there is more they could do to accelerate Bible translation.

Historically, scripture translation has been done by trained professionals. Involvement of supporters has therefore been limited to financial contributions. Give money, the strategy goes, and we will produce the translation. That’s not to say that Bible translations are being done through the tedious work of lone individuals- it’s a group effort. For every target language, translation efforts depend on a network of nationals, scholars, researchers, linguists, and writers to do the job. The Seed Company uses modern technology and its OurWord translation software (see video embedded in The Seed Company’s home page) to facilitate communication between translators and consultants.

As large and dynamic as these teams can be, I say they’re not large and dynamic enough. I would open them up to public participation; crowdsource the work.

Crowdsourcing is relying on the participation of volunteers to accomplish a task or maintain knowledge. Open source software is one example of crowdsourcing- its copyright allows users to makes changes to the source code, improving its compatibility, functionality, and usability. Wikipedia is another good example. Thousands of volunteer editors write the entries to the online encyclopedia that is accurate and up-to-date (and has put traditionally-edited print encyclopedias out of business).

The Seed Company should set up a wiki site that allows everyone from amateur linguists to phililogy students to national believers to aid in the translation of the scriptures. As with Wikipedia, users could write, edit, and maintain accurate translations of passages and books of the Bible in every available language. The source could always be available online to anyone who wanted to participate. The works-in-progress would provide tangible projects for churches to take on. Rather than holding potentially supportive churches at a “pray, give, or go” arm’s length, open source scripture translation would invite people in to direct and tangible involvement.  Churches could support individual translations and help recruit native speakers to assist with the work.

A greater base of locals would have ownership in the project, adding a level of indigeneity to what might otherwise be seen by supporters as patronizing efforts by outsiders. Regional versions could be accommodated, allowing for hyper-local translation in linguistically-diverse areas. The process would be maintained in an ongoing fashion; translations would no longer be considered either “in progress” or “finished,” and could instead keep up with the rapid changes all languages undergo. Curation of a translation by nationals could be an indicator of the viability of an indigenous church among a people.

Some have already turned to “the crowd” for projects related to the Bible. Crossway has tracked the highlighting practices of users of its online ESV Bible to find the most commonly highlighted Psalms. Self-described conservatives are crowdsourcing a “conservative” version of the King James Bible (what they call a “translation,” I’m calling an “interpretation.”) Nevertheless, their project shows that such an undertaking is possible and productive; the conservative New Testament was produced in about a year.

Sure, there are concerns and objections  (mostly on the part of professional translators)- can we trust the translation of the public? Of unbelievers? What about militant atheists who want to vandalize the project? How can we guarantee the accuracy and integrity of a translation done by strangers? What about the languages of isolated tribes who don’t have computers or internet access?

Well, for starters, technology can make this work. Version and editions tracking can make managing such a project viable. Those nationals who are currently regarded as “translators” would become editors. Their job would be to review and approve editions and proposed changes. Users could flag questionable or unhelpful translation wherever they run into it, and links could provide alternate translations. Source material could be viewed parallel to the target translation, and reference material could be easily accessed. All of this can be done on a text-based website designed to work on mobile phones.

At the very least, a raw translation can serve as rough drafts for professional translators rather than having them start from scratch. It would be the ultimate in accountability, as translation progress would be publicly visible. It would build community among participants, instill a sense of ownership, and give churches practical handles for supporting churches.

Crowdsourcing would greatly accelerate scripture translation.

NEXT: The Seed Company, Misunderstood

11 thoughts on “Crowdsource the Translation

  1. This blog seems to relate to aspects of your last one (Endangered Languages), where I commented that your suggested sociology framework for translation could be recast as a communal approach, minus the structuralist theory of culture. The post-Reformation model of translation has focused on small closed groups of experts in generally only 1-2 fields, mostly biblical language, but with some linguistics and anthro mixed in. Under globalization, good things happen, too. Translation can now feasibly be the work a far larger number of experts. At least what we define as expert input is expanded beyond this small close group. A communal approach to translation incorporates far more people from the affected community. The value of this is wide-ranging. The Seed Company does have a paper called “When Change Happens – Crowd Sourcing and Bible Translation”. In that paper, we lay out a case for doing both crowd sourcing and open sourcing in Bible translation. The latter method makes some people more uncomfortable, but if aggregating a wide variety of gifts, wisdom, and experience is what crowd sourcing is about, then open collaboration is also necessary, albeit with systems to maintain fidelity.

  2. Gilles,
    Remember, crowdsourcing isn’t just using a larger group of approved workers, whether they’re nationals or Westerners. Crowdsourcing is literally outsourcing to an undefined set of people. The reason many people are uncomfortable with the idea is that it would mean relinquishing control. Ultimately, The Seed Company isn’t likely to risk its reputation to accelerate translation.

  3. If you read the paper I mentioned, you will see that we are thinking very much in the same terms, in regard to power, control, globalization, indigenization, etc. These are very innovative times we are living in, and I would suggest a significant time of reformation in mission. Love to send it to you!

  4. Gilles,
    I’d love to read it. Please do send when you get a chance:

  5. Pingback: Missions, Misunderstood » The Seed Company, Misunderstood

  6. Interesting post. I love the principles behind crowd-sourcing and think it has a lot of potential in Bible translation, but I’m wondering how it might fit in to a context with limited or no internet connectivity, limited or no literacy proficiency in the target language, and a community-centred, tradition-based culture.

    My understanding is that crowd-sourcing generally relies on a large number of autonomous individuals who can each easily and freely give their opinion. I’m wondering how possible this is, and how it can best be achieved in culturally appropriate ways among minority language communities around the world. Maybe the paper Gilles mentioned addresses these issues…

  7. Mark,
    Crowdsourcing would indeed be difficult for languages that are not written. Most of the work requires literacy. But not impossible. The technology would be key, though.

    The Seed Company has a video on their home page showing how they provide translators with laptops and set up wireless internet access to facilitate communication. Mobile phones could also be used; some organizations are already collecting used cell phones and iPods to share the gospel and films. These same devices could be used for translation as well.

    Also, missionaries could incorporate translation into discipleship; each meeting with a recent or not-yet believer could include time spent translating the scriptures (“In English, the scriptures read like this. How would you say that in your language?”). Oral cultures could record their translations. The “crowd” effect could be achieved as each disciple then does the same with others. In some cases, the crowd may be an entire village working together to translate from a commonly-understood trade language into the unwritten native language.

    Also, don’t forget that “the crowd” would include Westerners such as graduate students looking for thesis projects (in linguistics, intercultural studies, philology, translation, specific languages, etc.), expatriates, and native speakers of near-languages. It may even include translation software, if we can get it to work reliably!

    I have been given permission to distribute Gilles’ paper, and I’d be happy to email it to you if you’ll let me know where to send it. You can email me here.

  8. Mark, those are good questions. Remember, technology doesn’t drive change, it only allows people to do things they were not able to do in the past (see Shirky, Cognitive Resource). What they want to do is a communal approach to translation. That means “together” and not a collection of people working independently, so illiteracy (lack of a better word) is not a limitation in a communal approach. Indeed, in one place where we’re testing crowd sourcing, intentionally without establishing much in the way of structure, we’ve seen older non-literate people eagerly engaging in the drafting with younger literate people, and we’ve seen the desire for people from all areas of this society wanting to participate. Granted, we’re helping with connectivity, but connectivity is a democracy issue these days, anyway. It’s growing fast so it won’t always be an obstacle.

  9. Hi Gilles and Ernest,

    Good thoughts – I think these are important issues to think through. I think a lot of what you’re suggesting is very good, but anything that relies on either staff or technology from outside is not going to lead to true crowd-sourcing. Certainly many of these strategies will lead to increased local involvement, but in order for sustainable crowd-sourcing to take place I would say the outside involvement must be no more than an initial catalyst. Cell phones are increasingly used in very rural situations, but I’m struggling to see how a user could be involved in translation without a significant level of literacy.

    To me the most promising route for non-literate communities is groups of people discussing the translation of Scripture portions together. But the issue you then run into is the huge amount of time it takes to translate portions of the Bible, and hence the impracticality of a large number of people working through translation in this way.

    I would love to see that paper and to keep thinking more about this – thanks Ernest, I’ll email you for that.

  10. Great article! What you are describing sounds like it is from the same vision behind the Door43 project ( – an open-source, open-access platform built using MediaWiki (the same engine that powers Wikipedia) that is designed as a platform for the global church to openly collaborate on discipleship resources that are released under an open license (CC-BY-SA). We have working extensions that enable USFM-encoded Scriptures to display as formatted text directly in web browsers and on mobile phones. Mobile access and a media-centric focus are core to the project as well. The first Bible translation project is getting underway and we are working to configure Door43 for use in every language of the world.

    We are looking for ways to partner with interested organizations and individuals so please get in touch with us and point others our way. Find out more at and watch the video that introduces the vision at

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