Why We Should Crowdsource the Interpreting Profession

By Katharine Allen, Co-President, InterpretAmerica

“Crowdsourcing is the process by which the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of a specialized few.”

So said Jeff Howe, a magazine writer credited with coining the term crowdsourcing in his 2006 Wired Magazine article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”. [1]

For many in the language services industry, especially practicing translators, crowdsourcing is a dirty word. We view it with trepidation or downright hostility as a direct threat to our livelihood. In fact, in little more than a decade, major translation companies now proudly tout their crowdsourcing tools and services online, arguing that using the crowd can increase both quality and speed.

When looked at from that narrow perspective, crowdsourcing can indeed wreak havoc on traditional business models. We need only consider the examples cited in Howe’s article, such as how professional photographers’ portfolios plummeted in value with the introduction of crowdsourced photo services like iStockphoto.

Furthermore, many professional interpreters share translators’ fears of the increasing penetration of social media apps and technology tools into their workplace. Will tools such as MediaBabble, Google Interpret and the recently announced Phrazer[2] pose significant threats to the traditional interpreting workplace model? Will companies find ways to crowdsource interpreting services to improve their bottom line at the expense of interpreter wages and workplace conditions?

Or can we take control of our professional destiny and use crowdsourcing principals to “accomplish feats that were once the province of a specialized few” to benefit the entire profession?

Crowdsourcing in general is a much more complex concept than a strategy corporations use to avoid paying professionals for their work. Take Wikipedia, the now classic example of how to leverage the “power of the crowd.”

Launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia was created to complement material for an online encyclopedia project whose content was to be generated by subject matter experts. But the idea of user-generated content soon took off and quickly exceeded its original purpose. As of this month, Wikipedia boasts “over 22 million freely usable articles in 284 languages, written by over 34 million registered users and countless anonymous contributors worldwide and visited monthly by around 14% of all Internet users.”[3]

Rather than a tool to simply improve the bottom line, Wikipedia is a powerful example of how crowdsourcing can be a formidable model for positive change. Even as early as 2006, Howe could write that:

The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users. [4]

Can we leverage those ideals originating in the open software movement into powerful tools to improve the interpreting profession? Can we improve old-school vertical communication and power structures that, intentionally or not, keep interpreting from coming into its own as a full-fledged profession in the United States? I would argue a resounding yes.

Interpreting in this country has historically mirrored the “province of the specialized few” in Jeff Howe’s original definition of crowdsourcing, in the sense that our profession has grown up in separate “silos” or sectors, with little cross communication and fertilization of ideas. The contributions achieved by “experts” in one sector to the benefit of their practitioners have all too rarely extended to practitioners in another.

For example, conference interpreting is considered the birthplace of modern interpreting. It is the only sector to have successfully negotiated comprehensive workplace agreements with large employers that define acceptable working conditions, wages and even sets specific technical parameters for certain kinds of technology employed at the workplace (without any kind of national legislation that mandates such agreements for sign language and some aspects of legal interpreting).

Conference interpreting is the best-paid and most prestigious spoken-language interpreting sector; yet the valuable benefits gained by these efforts have yet to be digested and duplicated outside of conference interpreting to the broader profession. And now those gains are in jeopardy given the rapid introduction of virtual and off-site interpreting technologies that make it possible for interpreters to call in from anywhere in the world.

Another concrete example of largely unrecognized but important innovations in interpreting is the contributions by military interpreting in developing and teaching rapid gisting of key document data, summarization, transcription/translation processes in real time, and interpreting protocols to best protect interpreters in situations risking life and limb.

Indeed, every interpreting sector has something key to share with the rest of the profession. However before the advent of the Internet and universally available horizontal communication models, this information was difficult if not impossible to access by the average practitioner. If the 1990s can be described by a single phrase, we might call it the “era of recreating the wheel” sector by sector. Many felt an accompanying sense of isolation and powerlessness to do anything to overcome the problems they felt plagued our profession.

All of that is beginning to change.

Professional associations, LSPs, educational organizations, and individual interpreters are rapidly adopting social media tools such as listserves, Facebook and Twitter sites, and webinars to promote increased collaboration and information sharing. Facebook and LinkedIn discussion groups have exploded in number over the past few years, with spirited debate among members from all over the world. Twitter users have organized TweetIns, created live conference feeds and daily post a fire-hose stream of relevant information and resources freely available to any who takes the time to look, including many job postings.

Where once-upon-a-time this kind of collaboration was limited to face-to-face yearly conferences or listserves limited to those who paid to be members of professional associations, now anyone can make their voice heard. The richness of  the resulting exchange, ideas, and collaboration is hard to overstate or overvalue.

One concrete current example of accessing the “power of the crowd” is the Professional Identity Workgroup sessions, first held at the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting. The simple act of gathering representatives from across all sectors together who heretofore had not had the opportunity to have open exchanges on very important topics such as certification, education, and technology, produced a powerful synergy, which has led to real change in the way our profession is communicating on these issues. (Full details can be downloaded free of change in Interpreting:Full Speed Ahead – Blazing A Trail Toward National Unity.)

This kind of cross sector collaboration, utilizing the tools that enable mutual access between all of us, “the crowd” is increasing so quickly that we will soon shake our heads in disbelief at the thought that just a few short years ago legal and medical interpreters often eyed each other suspiciously from their respective work sites, or that sign language and oral language interpreting were considered completely separate professions.

Consider this expanded definition of crowdsourcing proposed recently by two researchers:

Crowdsourcing is a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposes to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task. The undertaking of the task, of variable complexity and modularity, and in which the crowd should participate bringing their work, money, knowledge and/or experience, always entails mutual benefit. The user will receive the satisfaction of a given type of need, be it economic, social recognition, self-esteem, or the development of individual skills, while the crowdsourcer will obtain and utilize to their advantage that what the user has brought to the venture, whose form will depend on the type of activity undertaken.[5] [Emphasis added.]

The interpreting profession, regardless of sector, has always been fueled by the tireless volunteer work of those who grow and maintain our institutional frameworks, from the most humble committee member to the most vaunted association president. Yet the silo-ized nature of our efforts has chronically hampered greater progress in achieving the professional recognition, remuneration and relevance we seek.

If we can take that existing energy and passion and now collectively act as both the “crowdsourcer”, i.e., the ones convening the crowd, and as the individuals providing the collective wisdom to solve our shared problems, we can indeed “accomplish feats that were once the province of a specialized few.”



The Professional Identity Workgroups will reconvene at the upcoming 3rd North American Summit on Interpreting, June 15-16, in Monterey California. Visit www.interpretamerica.net for more information.

[1] Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html?pg=1&topic=crowds&topic_set=

[2] Duluth’s Phrazer maker sees room for device and human interpreters, Duluth News Tribune, May 15, 2012, http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/231559/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia

[4] The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired Magazine, Jeff Howe Issue 14.06, June 2006 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html

[5] Estellés Arolas, E.; González Ladrón-de-Guevara, F. (2012) Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition. Journal of Information Science (in press).


0 thoughts on “Why We Should Crowdsource the Interpreting Profession”

  1. Kathleen Shelly says:

    Fascinating ideas, Katharine! It is indeed amazing the speed at which interpreters have arrived at a place where sharing experience and knowledge is now the norm rather than the exception. There are still those out there, however, who just want to stay in their little niche and do the work they are fortunate enough to have, hold tight to their hard-won knowledge and turn inward rather then outward toward their colleagues. They are missing out on the future of the interpreting profession in all of its many aspects!

  2. crowdfunding says:

    Here is a detailed article that I recomment on crowdsourcing.
    It examins the rise of crowdsourcing as well as some websites for crowdfunding

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