Associated Press
In this June 14, 2010, photo, Daisuke Tsuda tweets with his mobile phone at a station in Tokyo.

Twitter launched a Twitter Translation Center Monday in an effort to obtain volunteer translation services from users and localize its user interface into other languages. For years, Facebook and other companies have also been turning to users for volunteer translation in what is often called “crowdsourcing.” These high-profile examples have many companies wondering if they could get volunteers to work for them, too.

Crowdsourcing is not unique to translation. The wisdom and energy of global crowds has been harnessed to create many great resources that you may currently use. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, have donated thousands of hours in professional services to create very popular products. Volunteer authors have written more than 17 million articles in dozens of languages to create the popular online encyclopedia known as Wikipedia. More than 100,000 volunteers have indexed more than 500 million genealogical records in 11 languages at Software developers worldwide have likewise put incredible amounts of energy into building the desktop software suite and the Linux operating system.

However, crowdsourcing is not all roses and daisies. Various inaccuracies on Wikipedia have made news, and translation crowdsourcing faces similar challenges that must be overcome to create a reliable product. For example, professionals have been quick to point out when volunteers have unintentionally or maliciously blundered translations on Facebook. In one case in 2010, a group of Turkish “translators” banded together to game the system and play an obscene prank. The result was a Turkish user interface on Facebook filled with expletives and insults. Similarly profane “mistranslations” have sneaked through in other languages, too.

“You can’t be sure of what you will get from strangers or crowds as they contain experts as well as opinionated non-experts. It’s a mixed bag,” wrote Utah-based localization management professional Michael Cox and translation technology expert Kirti Vashee. “The counterpoint to this is that with the right process, technology and oversight, you can corral the efforts and knowledge of the crowd to produce a quality product, in many ways better than any subset of people could create. Wikipedia, Apache, OpenOffice and Linux have proven this.”

Does this mean that your company could also obtain free translation and professional services from volunteers just by reaching out and requesting it from the world? Maybe, or maybe not.

For a company to receive volunteer services from crowds, something big must motivate the crowds from the start. The idea that “if you build it, they will come” will not work for most businesses. Is there a philanthropic motivation for people to volunteer? People may be willing to volunteer services to help Doctors Without Borders, KIVA microfinance, or efforts to stop human trafficking. However, most for-profit companies will not see volunteers flocking to them unless there is a different motivation.

A “cool factor” can also motivate crowds. Some professionals would love to include a note on their resumes that they have performed work for Google, Facebook or Twitter. Others simply want “cool” applications from such companies to be available in their own languages, and volunteer translation may even be the only way that a company would agree to serve some small populations.

Even if a company can recruit volunteers, are such translation crowdsourcing services all that the news makes them out to be? Are they, in fact, free?

“When casual observers comment about how getting the users to translate sounds like good business, they are alluding to the bit about it being wink-wink-nudge-nudge ‘free,’ ” says Benjamin Sargent of think tank Common Sense Advisory. “Actually, it costs money to manage work, whether your workers are volunteer or paid. Not to mention, in Facebook's case, investment in building a collaborative translation capability into the product itself.”

Representatives from Sun Microsystems noted in the early days of translation crowdsourcing that time and money were required not only to manage the volunteers, but also to keep them motivated with kudos and engagement. Professionals still must be paid for editing services and development of crowdsourcing management systems, like the platform developed by Utah-based Lingotek.

Here is the little-known secret about crowdsourcing: translation crowdsourcing regularly costs as much as, if not more than, traditional professional translation. So, if it is not truly free, what motivates companies to pursue it?

“Free was not the point. Time was,” explains Sargent about Facebook’s motivations. “Translations started appearing in days, rather than in the months it otherwise would have taken a vendor to manage, test and deliver a localized user interface of more than 100,000 words.”

Other major corporations, including Cisco and Microsoft, have also said they do not implement crowdsourcing to cut costs but for other reasons, including speed.

Additional benefits include “increased take-up of Facebook in the locale concerned, immediate access to up-to-the minute terminology,” says localization expert Ultan Ó Broin. “But also it's a powerful user engagement strategy in its own right — yielding brand loyalty, increased usage and so on.”

In conclusion, your for-profit company may not be able to harness the energy of worldwide crowds to obtain free services. However, companies whose users have that rare motivation may gain various benefits from crowdsourcing, such as speed and a more loyal fan base, even if the service is not actually free.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..