I’ve just been updating the links page of our website. Every time I do that, or try to look at a few blogs about China, I realise how much is there. There’s at least a dozen very high quality news sources covering social trends, environmental issues, economics, law, and the Chinese digital world. In spite of censorship and the language barrier, there is reliable, quality information available about the state of China for those willing to learn.

But most of these sources are written by Westerners, analysing the situation in English, and using intellectual tools and structures learnt in a Western context. That is good, because ultimately, their audience is Western, and adapting the analysis to the audience will help in making China more understood. But something’s missing from the web: what’s missing, and what we’re looking to provide, is the voices of Chinese intellectuals and writers directly translated – not those frontally dissenting and leaving the country, but those who toe the line, and analyse the current situation of China from within. What’s missing is direct access to the rhetorical structures of contemporary Chinese discourse, its emphases and ellipses, its metaphors and repetitions, what it focuses on, and what it lefts in the shadow. That is what we’re trying to provide – not to replace what already exists, but to fill in this gap.

I attended a session today at the City of Melbourne for applications to Small Business Start Up Grants. We were thinking of applying for one, but it turns out, after chatting with the organisers, that we’re not very likely to succeed.

Our project falls in between categories. Melbourne offers grants for innovative for-profit small businesses that will create employment and revenue for the City of Melbourne – but we’re not really doing that directly – and grants for businesses and organisations that assist underprivileged categories – homeless people, people with disabilities, refugees – but we’re not doing that either. Our not-for-profit  proposal to build cultural exchange and education does not really align with their key concerns. Fair enough.

But when I talked with the advisor there, she also said something which set me thinking (thank you advisor), when she said that our idea sounded great, but it was not really innovative, that the services already existed, we were just packaging them differently. I’m not 100/100 convinced that it’s the case, but I was glad to be confronted so directly. I reflected on the actual point of difference of our website, and realised it is about using and trusting the crowd to identify and translate original voices from China. I wrote a post on my personal blog about it, which I’m reposting here.

One question has been bugging me a lot lately, around the Marco Polo Project. A core, central, excruciating business question. Why would anyone actually  come to our website? I’ve had  lots of tactical answers so far, and they were good enough: people will come if we advertise properly and if we build strong networks, and they will stay if our website looks good, if it’s quick and efficient. This was supported by all sorts of documents, of how China’s definitely suprt-hot, and there’s a shortage of Chinese teachers, and online learning is the new frontier.

But that doesn’t address the core, hard question: why would anyone spend time on the Marco Polo Project, rather than reading blogs about China written in English, translating articles for wikipedia, or doing a language exchange on qq?

The only good answer I can give to that is: people will come to us if they’re  looking for the voice of original Chinese writers.

It sounds like a paradox, because one potential flaw in our model is that we’ll be relying on the work of amateurs for our translations – with potential loss of accurracy, and problems of quality control. And yet, I believe that we are the only translation and media platform that, from its conception and structure, really focuses on Chinese writing – in other words, on text construction, choice of words and point of view, rather than news and information.

Accordingly, once our platform is up, our work should be to filter, tag and bring up the best writing from the Chinese web, and build a strong editorial team with taste and intuition.

We believe that ‘information’ is not all that people are after, that the way things are said actually matters. We believe it is worthwhile to listen to Chinese voices, and follow the way they build an argument, or what steps they take when telling a story. We believe that even an amateur translation will carry most of that across, and we believe that making efforts to translate not only ‘contents’ but an individual voice is the best exercise to build on your language skills.

At least that’s the bet we’re making, and that there’s a public for it.

A few days ago, I exchanged emails with Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs the wonderful Danwei online magazine. I was introduced to Jeremy through Professor Geremie Barme at ANU, himself introduced by Jill Collins at the Australian Embassy in Beijing. Thank you networks! It is really precious, when you start a project like this one, to received some attention and support.

I was thrilled when I saw Jeremy’s email. He’s a legend – he’s been one of the most influential online writers in China for the last 8 years. And now he’s giving us advice. He confirmed our initial thought that crowd-sourcing would only really work if we built solid partnerships with teaching institutions, who would feed a regular inflow of fresh and motivated translators to our website. He also expressed concern about the quality of our translations – something most people have talked about. We will need to think about it more deeply, maybe find a way to pay translators to review advanced work, or have ‘sponsored’ articles, with a reward for the translator.

But now, my main feeling is confidence in the possibilities of the internet. Jeremy was very friendly, and very quick to contact us. Earlier this year, I had a similar thrill when I contacted Meedan.net, and they got back to us rightaway, telling us about their web system.

Right, we’re still a bunch of random friends buidling a website in our study. But I can see how, slowly, we’re beginning to exist as a group with a mission. It’s a great transition, towards a proper collective. Thank you Danwei for the tips. Let’s do this thing!