Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to ‘’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something?

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have?

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.

Our crowd-funding campaign has been successful! Over the last three weeks, we gathered $3,020 from a community of 76 people. This marks a major step for Marco Polo Project. Not only can we now develop a proposed set of improvements to our website, and make our platform more attractive to translators; this is also the first time we’ve had money coming in on such a scale from outside the core founding team. There now is a community supporting us, and we’re accountable to them to do the best we can.

As a form of meditative acknowledgement for this extremely generous support, I would like to end this series of reflections with a post on evaluation. As an organisation looking for government, community and philanthropic support, it is crucial for us to measure success efficiently: transparency and accountability are, rightfully, basic requirements to receive such funding. But we should also spend time to meaningfully reflect about what actually constitutes a good measure of success for our organisation.

The project is now two years old, and meets all the basic conditions for fulfilling our mission. From what was originally just an idea and a group of people, we have set up a formal organisation, built a website, selected a catalogue of texts, gathered a community, and defined a working model. This phase of ‘initial set up’ is over, now we must move on to more strategic development.

Our goal is to contribute to Chinese and China literacy on a global scale. We propose to do so by developing an online platform gathering a digital community that translates, reads and discusses contemporary Chinese writing. And as we grow, we would like more translators to spend more time on our website, producing more and better translations as a result, which more readers will read, share and discuss. This defines three core areas for measuring success: translator engagement, readership, and contents.

The last one – contents – is probably the easiest to measure. The absolute number of translations on our website is an indicator of success. For more refined appreciation, we should produce a set of measures combining the number of texts translated, their average length, and the ‘level of completion’ reached. This, however, does not indicate the quality of our selection – which will be more subtly appreciated by proxy measures, such as number of ‘shares’, feedback from users (comments, star ratings), and mentions of our selection quality in the media or on blogs.

To measure readership engagement, web analytics are a good starting point. The best indicator derived from web analytics is probably the total time spent on the website – number of visits * average time per visit. The number of comments and shares is another indicator. Proxy measures include social media reach out (number of people ‘liking’ our facebook page and twitter followers; and their level of interaction), link-backs to our website on other blogs or websites, and media collaborations, such as guest-blogging or re-posts.

At a basic level, translator engagement will be measured as the total number of registered users and, among them, the number of active users (actually producing translations). Comments from users or – if they are students – by their teachers about their increased Chinese language fluency, understanding of China, and motivation to learn Chinese, will also allow us to indirectly measure the success of our translator engagement. This data will be gathered ad hoc; pending funding availability, we may also conduct a survey or focus group to better assess success.

We are currently devising a series of strategic documents that will articulate both our core activities and projects aiming to improve readership, contents, or translators engagement. When these are finished – in a month or so – we will be ready for the second phase of Marco Polo Project’s existence, beyond initial set up, towards building a sustainable organisation.

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

This post talks about changes in ‘contents’ industries brought about by the internet. Nothing I’m writing here is remarkably original, but it’s important to rearticulate things, and clearly define how these changes are influencing the model we’re building.

One of the reasons Marco Polo Project is such an exciting venture to develop is that it shares the challenges of other ‘cultural contents industries’ currently going through radical changes – journalism, publishing, film and music. Until recently, these industries were in charge of producing contents which was then distributed in a certain media format; people – consumers – finally paid to access or own a copy of that content.

The internet has radically changed the game, by transforming the way cultural contents is produced, distributed, and consumed. To put it simply, the same device (a computer, tablet or smart-phone connected to the internet) is now used to produce, distribute and consume a large proportion of all writing, film and music. Physical objects still exist – books, CDs, DVDs, rolls of film – as well as live venues; but more and more cultural products are read, watched or listened to directly from computers.

This transformation has a series of consequences.

The first is a drastic reduction in the cost of distributing contents. I’m not talking about fraud or illegal copies, which is a separate issue. An e-book, a digital copy of a film, or a music track do not need to be stored or transported; making new copies to meet demand can occur instantaneously, and disposing of unsold products can be done at almost no cost. This is great for the consumer, this can be great for the producer, but is dramatic for distributors – as well as many trades involved in the production of physical media carrying cultural contents.

The second consequence is a blurring of the distinction between production and consumption of cultural contents. Writers not only write books for print or articles for printed magazines: they have a blog, and a twitter account where they interact with their audience; and many people in their audience also have a blog and twitter, on which they produce contents not dissimilar in nature. Many people produce videos and music, and share them on youtube or myspace. Some imitate or reproduce existing hits – karaoke versions of popular songs, samples and montages – or take place in the universe of a particular book or film – fan-fiction. And for the news, citizen journalists complement the work of traditional media by providing direct videos or pictures – while the comment thread (once you filter out the trolls) can provide additional depth to their articles.

Finally, with the huge inflation and diversification of contents, curation has taken an increased importance. People share and recommend blog-posts, music-tracks or videos they like, sometimes adding a line of their own. And facebook pages, twitter accounts, google readers or flipboard devices bring together the various strands of each individual reader’s online engagement, which become part of one’s online image and identity.

The model proposed by the Marco Polo Project rests on the possibilities opened by these transformations. Our platform was conceived with that new paradigm in mind, and therefore does not directly align with models that existed before.  The Marco Polo Project is a cultural magazine offering Chinese contents in Mandarin and translation. The Marco Polo Project is a language learning website. And the Marco Polo Project is a cross-cultural online community.

If the lines between consuming and producing contents are blurred, this applies to translation just as much. Our model embraces this ambiguity fully, by combining the act of reading a text in a foreign language, and that of translating it. Our new website interface will be redesigned to better integrate both types of action – offering bilingual text alignment, a quick change / ‘improve as you go’ widget, and a validation model for existing translations.

Our proposed improvements also include discussion forums, acknowledging that comments and discussion are a full part of online reading. More than simple forums, we plan to develop an advanced track back system connecting comments in a forum thread to a particular spot in a text, and a particular user. In the future, we wish to create new plugins allowing us to import the Chinese comment thread from the original text, and export translations of comments done in other languages to the original, to facilitate a multilingual discussion.

Finally, we believe that individual contents curation is a crucial part of online reading. As a first step in that direction, we plan to create a personal user page, listing all interactions to the website: translations, comments, shares, etc. In the future, we plan to develop plugins that will help users identify texts most suited to their level, vocabulary they want to learn, or subject matter of interest to them. We also plan to create a customized, tablet-compatible magazine where users can subscribe to texts from a certain category, or level of difficulty.

This is what we plan to do – but maybe we’re missing out on something – we’d love to hear what you think of our plans, and where you think we could improve!

Saturday morning was our first production meeting for a planned series of podcasts, in partnership with Quick Chat Productions. Marco Polo Project is going oral! Each month, we plan to release one podcast with a selection of three texts from the Marco Polo Project website, in Chinese and English. My friend Nghi – founder of Quick Chat – first suggested the project, and it’s now starting, with the voices of Chantal Leptos and Yixuan Xu for the first batch.

Making podcasts will have three benefits for us.

It will open up a new audience. Some people enjoy listening to stories or essays in the form of podcasts as they walk, ride or drive. They will now be able to listen to contemporary Chinese voices, in translation.

It will make our contents more accessible. People with vision impediments, or who find reading online a strain on their eyes, will now be able to access the contents we provide in a format accessible to them.

It will increase our appeal to language learners, by allowing them to train both their listening and reading skills, in various ways. Many learners of Mandarin are foreigners who lived or live in China. Their listening and speaking skills are generally quite good, but they have poor reading skills. The Chinese podcast will allow them to ‘translate as they listen’, and train their translation/interpreting skills, or at least keep up their Mandarin in an active way. It will also allow them to match sound with character – using the original text as transcript – and therefore improve their reading capability. For Chinese speakers, these podcasts will allow them to improve their English listening skills, using the Chinese original as subtitles.

Month by month, we will build up a library of podcasts, and make them available on our website – building up a precious corpus for learners and teachers to use.

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

When I present Marco Polo Project somewhat sketchily, people sometimes imagine that our platform is a sort of google translate surrogate – a piece of software automatically translating Chinese writing into foreign languages. Machine translation works better and better, it is going to radically change the way people engage across languages, and I personally love using it for my own translations. But it’s not what we do.

Marco Polo Project is not competing with machine translators – challenging google with no funds would be somewhat ludicrous – but we must articulate our goals and purpose in the context of their existence. Hence this post.

The goal of the Marco Polo Project is to build Chinese and China literacy. We propose to do so by inviting people to read and translate contemporary Chinese writing. The machine may translate, but the machine doesn’t read – or more precisely, no-one cares if it does.

Google translate is a superb tool; but on its own, it will not build any China literacy. Human translation has this one advantage over machine translation that at least one person – the translator – has to read the text. Translation, after all, is a form of advanced reading. By translating a text, you understand intimately the structures of a language, but also how another person articulates an argument – or develops a fictional world through language. You gain insight not only into the language, but also the subjective expression of another person’s vision. Even a task as mundane as pasting text into google translate, cursorily reading the result, and pasting it back into the website, is a form of reading, and a form engagement with Chinese writing.

Our platform is not just about ‘producing contents’, like a workshop or factory would produce cars or tables. It is about engaging a community. And that is a very different goal. A translation of a text, whether it was generated by a machine or a person, simply sitting online, has no value until it meets a reader. A text unread is as good as dead.

Our new developments will encourage reading texts and sharing them, by allowing users to quickly ‘evaluate’ a translation, but also like and share texts, and list on their profile page all of these social interactions. Each user will build a personalised library connecting to their profile.

Beside, we just pitched in a grant application to the Victorian Multicultural Commission to lead a full programme of community engagement. If we are successful, we will develop a series of workshops and translation events – online and offline, to encourage participation by increasing the social element.

This is how we propose to build China literacy, and improve the conditions for cross-cultural dialogue: not just by producing translated contents, but by creating an ecosystem that encourages more and more people to read, translate and discuss the views expresses in writing from China.

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

One of our proposed new features on the Marco Polo Project website is a bilingual display system – by clicking on a simple button, readers will be able to see the text in two columns, Chinese on the right, translation on the left, with paragraph alignment. This will not only put forward the mediated nature of the translation (see our previous post on ‘the translator as mediator’), but also give readers the possibility to better ‘quick read’.

There are two main ways of learning a language by reading. One is to practice very slow and careful reading – explore the structure of sentence after sentence, in depth, unpacking each grammatical difficulty and searching every word in the dictionary, until all nuances of meaning become crystal clear. That is the kind of work required for advanced, high quality translation.

But there is another very different way of reading a text in a language you don’t really know: quick reading, skimming over the surface, getting the gist instead of nuances, and looking for speed over precision.

Each form of practice has its benefits. Slow reading will solidify syntactic knowledge, add new words to the vocab list, and increase comprehension of nuances. It will fix in the brain ‘typical’ patterns that can be copied or varied upon. Quick reading will increase overall confidence and intuition. It will rarely develop new knowledge, but solidify what is already known.

The capacity to use simple words and structures rightaway, the capacity to not focus on the self-evident, is a great part of language fluency. Fluency in a foreign language is about more than just understanding – it’s about understanding as you go. Like in sport, music, dance, you must keep up the rhythm.

This comes through repeated practice – with failure, or loss but at speed. Bilingual reading is a way to more easily skim over a text in a foreign language. The eye can shift from original to translation, helping identify the meaning of unknown characters, or perceive the structure of a sentence. This is not ‘lazy work’, this is a smart understanding of motivation. If the task is too hard, not giving up requires a lot of effort – and who will sustain that level of demand over the long term. If we can make the task a little simpler, then it will not be so demanding, and sustained effort become more likely – with success, in turn, increasing.

Beside, if people quick read an article, they still learn more about China, and that’s a good thing, don’t you think?

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

We’re proposing to ‘gamify’ the Marco Polo Project. ‘Gamify’ simply means that an activity is made more like a game by changing the process design, in order to increase engagement – and enjoyment – by the participants. To put it simply, if it’s fun, people will more willingly do it.

This proposal responds to one particular difficulty which feedback from users has outlined:

  •  On the one end, we’ve had consistent positive feedback on our selection from readers – the material we select is rich, diverse, and stimulating.
  • On the other end, we’ve had consistent negative feedback on our selection from potential translators – that our texts are long and difficult.

But of course, translators are also readers – and pieces using under 1000 characters are rarely rich and stimulating. Beside, learners tend to underestimate their own competence – but can work on difficult and complex material when they gain the confidence.

So our proposal to gamify the translation process is a way to address this difficulty: re-design our interface in a way that will encourage our translators to get over the hump, and tackle writing they find long and difficult. Compensate the perceived difficulty of the contents by interface  usability.

Partly, this means eliminating any frustration around inadequate design – all the little bugs that make users’ life that much more difficult. But it also means developing new features that allows translators to better measure progress – as progress tracking has been shown to be the key factor in motivation.

This will occur at two levels.

We will increase user motivation by better measuring the progress of each translation:

  • We will insert a progress bar, indicating the percentage of the text left to translate.
  • We will insert a lateral colour bar indicating  the translation status of each paragraph.
  • We will allow users to validate a translation paragraph by paragraph, breaking down the daunting task of translating a full text into smaller, manageable sub-components.

We will increase user motivation by better measuring personal progress on the website:

  • We will create a personalised profile page where translators can see the list of all their interaction with the website.
  • We will develop a points and badge system, introducing an element of competition, and allowing them to gain motivation by working towards a ‘badge’.
  • The proposed system will reward various users for different types of interaction – submitting, translating, reviewing, or contributing to forums.

We believe that these changes will radically improve the user experience, leading to better learning outcomes for translators, as well as more translations completed – and therefore more material available for readers.

I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the gamification course on ( by Kevin Werbach, and would strongly encourage everyone to have a look.

Rousseau called it “l’esprit de l’escalier” – staircase wit – finding your bon mot, the one that would set everyone laughing, just a few hours too late. It happens to all of us. It’s happened to me just recently.

Two days ago, I did a skype interview with a French IT guru, Jean-Michel Billaut, about the Marco Polo Project. We set off on the wrong foot: our first interview, scheduled at the end of May, had been cut short by cause of bad internet (when is NBN coming again?) So this time, I went to Hub Melbourne, where they have a decent connection (thank you Rick Chen At 7pm, Melbourne time, for an 11am, French time interview.

And I wasn’t happy with it. For some reason, my French was confused (am I forgetting my mother tongue), and Jean-Michel kept asking me questions that somehow set me off balance – what’s our business model, how to find a French translation on the site, or whether Melbourne was better than Sydney. I did not manage to give back precisely pitched, clear and sharp answers that viewers would carry on in their head, like a mantra. Well, there’ll be more interviews.

The good thing is, retrospective frustration has shaken my brain a bit, and I’ve now coined a nice expression to describe Marco Polo Project. It is a tool to better understand China.

By using our platform, our users can improve their understanding of the Chinese language, and improve their understanding of the Chinese context. This defines it clearly. And entails a clear user base – people who want to better understand China. Popular as “China” has become, that’s far from everyone. More and more people want to benefit from or protect themselves from China – but few want to actually understand it. The former won’t care for us, and we won’t care much for them either. but I hope the latter will come to us, and tell us how to better develop our platform, so we can better serve them over time.

One thing to note in this definition is the comparative – our website will help users better understand China – that is, if they know something about it already. We’re not a website for language beginners, neither do we provide a broad stroke cultural overview. People will come to us to refine their knowledge, by reading original voices, or practicing translation skills that are, already, somewhat developed.

In other words, we won’t be “the China portal”, and our audience will be limited – but what we can hope for is to become a solid reference for people interested in that niche – and, I guess, it’s a niche, but a growing one.

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.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had conversations with two of our business interns about what the Marco Polo Project actually does. Lily was creating a diagram to map our operation systems; Sara had to write a situation analysis of our company as an assignment for her marketing course. Both had the same central question: what business are we in?

The best thing about working with interns is that they are asking questions like this: they want to understand, and if anything is unclear, they’ll be quick to pick it up. Lily and Sara’s question is crucial, and I was a bit concerned that I was not able to give them a sharp and concise answer. So I’ve been thinking about it, and here’s an attempt at answering it in one sentence:

The Marco Polo Project is an online venture that proposes to create value from the by-products of language education.

This sentences captures our business proposal at a very abstract level. To describe our service offer more concretely, I’d like to start with how I originally came up with the idea of the Marco Polo Project.

Language students do translations as part of their course. Some of these translations are not too bad; and generally, language teachers give a correction in class, producing a version of the text which, if not always elegant or subtle, conveys at least the meaning accurately. But these translations all go to the bin.

Meanwhile, there is a large amount of Chinese writing published online and in print. Some of it is high quality, and would appeal to international readers interested in hearing a Chinese voice on a certain topic, or simply curious to discover new fiction and non-fiction from China. But hardly any Chinese writing is available in translation, and very few people outside China know enough Mandarin to directly select and read these texts in the original.

The Marco Polo Project proposes to channel the efforts of language students to make more Chinese writing available in translation.

There is one key concern with our proposal which many people pinpointed: quality control. What if our translations are inaccurate and inelegant?

Beside an immediate retort that student translations may not be all that bad, there are three elements of answer to consider.

The first is about risk moderation. We propose a green-lighting system that indicates how advanced a translation is. This system is run by the translators themselves, rating their own translation or that of another user. There is room for error, but overall, it gives readers some indication as to the quality of each translation. The readers may then choose to only read the most reliable material, or access translations in progress.

The second is about the fluid nature of online publishing. Unlike print, the web allows for continuous improvement; nothing ever has to be finalised. Our platform is based on a wiki system that allows for ongoing, collective revision. Readers will also be able to indicate their interest for a specific text, based on its title, topic, or author, increasing the chances that translators will work on it.

The third point is about the market we’re in. We are not offering a hand-picked selection of carefully crafted translations, but rougher material in bulk. Our value-added per text may be low, but the combined added-value of our translations will grow with time. We will become a reference not through the quality of our selection, but the possibilities offered by the quantity of untranslated material that we make available.

The Marco Polo Project uses the possibilities of online publishing to create a shared library of Chinese writing in translation which will grow and increase in quality with time.

The key to success for the Marco Polo Project will be to attract a critical mass of translators, regularly contributing new material to our library. Our platform is likely to encourage such collaboration.

Language learning institutions have an interest in their students practicing translation, and are therefore likely to promote our website. Our platform could also become a part of class activities – for instance, a translation class could be run as a collective submission to the Marco Polo Project.

Participating in our activities will also be an opportunity for students and amateur translators to show their skills and build a translation portfolio. Meanwhile, the possibility to reach a wide audience and contribute to a better understanding of China would be an incentive for students to do translation exercises on our platform.

The Marco Polo Project organises a community of translators who collectively build and maintain a free online library of Chinese writing in translation.

Another important element for success will be to ensure that our selection of texts is rich and varied, and that our readers can easily find a broad range of writing, in different genres and styles, and on a wide range of topics.

For that, we will need to build:

  • a network of Chinese readers who regularly submit original, well-written and stimulating Chinese writing to our website
  • a team of editors who select the most promising pieces, put them forward on our pages and use them to attract wider attention
  • a team of content managers who sort and label the texts in our databse, to derive the maximum value from our existing material.

These tasks may need to be performed by a selected team at first, but will be delegated later – totally or in part – to an online community of writers and readers interested in promoting a better understanding of China internationally.

These roles may particularly appeal to Chinese writers and bloggers. Our website will reveal emerging voices from China to an international audience. Some of the writers initially translated on our website will be able to negotiate direct contracts with established publishing houses or western media, and be professionally translated. The people engaged in sourcing, selecting and sorting the material for the Marco Polo Platform will influence on this outcome, and therefore influence the global perception of China, giving them an incentive to participate.

The Marco Polo Project organises a community of readers and writers contributing to better global understanding of China.

Given the business that we’re in, the Marco Polo core team will have three main roles:

  • Provide the Marco Polo community with a reliable and user-friendly web platform
  • Promote the Marco Polo Project through a range of channels and institutions, attracting a wide and capable community of users to build a rich and varied selection of material on the website
  • Monitor contents and conflicts, to ensure the project is not endangered by trolls or disruptive users.

Initially, the Marco Polo Project core team will need to kick-start the project, and will therefore also form the initial core of the Marco Polo community.