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 pozible.com/marcopoloproject.

No website is an island, entire of itself. The web is a living ecosystem where each individual platform largely depends on others around it. The Marco Polo Project does not operate in a void, but in relation to a number of existing online organisations who share parts of our mission. It is therefore crucial to be clear about where we propose to fit, and contribute to that existing ecosystem.

This post is also an acknowledgement of our main collaborators and sources of inspiration. This post is not intended as an exhaustive list.

When people ask me where I see the Marco Polo Project in 5 years time, I generally reply that I would like it to be ‘one of the twenty reference websites for people wishing to learn Chinese and read about China’. ‘One of’ is the key part here. We do not wish to build a one-stop-shop for Chinese literacy, but be part of a network of like-minded online (and offline) organisations.

Our mission combines language learning and the publication of Chinese writing in translation. In both areas, we complement existing ventures

‘Learn Chinese’ websites are not rare. But most of them just offer lists of words and grammar rules for beginners, complemented, at best, with a few podcasts and ‘cultural facts’. For intermediate and advanced learners – our target user group – the choice is still very limited. And, in particular, opportunities for active learning are rare. So there seems to be a gap for semi-fluent learners, those who’ve outgrown all ‘beginner’s’ resources, yet are not comfortable enough to just navigate Chinese-only websites, and want to improve their reading capability. This is our core niche – not a huge one, but an important and a growing one. At the moment, two main platforms share it with us. FluentU offers a selection of videos from the Chinese web with subtitles. Lang-8 offers the possibility to write a blog in Chinese, and have native speakers correct it. Users can also read the blogs of other learners. Another website worth mentioning is the brilliant Chinesepod, who propose very good podcasts tailored for all levels. These websites are great for practicing listening and writing skills; we may currently be the only one focusing on reading capability for high intermediate and advanced Mandarin learners, and combining quality contents with active language practice.

Though rare in light of the extreme wealth of material, a number of websites offer bilingual versions of Chinese writing. These are mostly not labelled as ‘language learning sites’, but can be of use to language learners. The main ones to quote are brilliant Chinasmack for ‘pop culture’ trends on the Chinese web, Ministry of Tofu for social trends, China dialogue for the environment, and Paper Republic for literature. Our contents selection complements that offered on these platforms: we are the only ones to really focus on long-view opinion and reflection pieces by leading intellectuals and a representative selection of blog-posts by young Chinese urban bloggers.

By filtering and translating this content, we act as a mediator between Chinese and English language online magazines. Our existence depends on that of a few Chinese blog aggregators – 1510, consensus network, niubo, and the social networking system douban – who do the hard work of selecting, filtering and organising the original contents. It also largely depends on online magazines and websites about China targeting a Western audience, not just by providing translations, but also commentaries and analyses. Among those, we already collaborate with Danwei and the China story, and wish to extend these collaborations in the future, becoming a regular contributor to other online (and offline) magazines for China-focused contents. Danwei proposes a good list of those, as well as high quality China-focused blogs.

Finally, we complement an existing and more established China-based website: yeeyan.org. Their platform proposes a selection of English-language writing in Chinese translation, and their translations are crowd-sourced. To an extent, they are a mirror organisation to us. Their focus however is less on training language learners, and more on making content accessible. Probably because translators typically work from their second to their first language, and many more Chinese people read English than English-speakers do Mandarin. We are now in contact with yeeyan, and discussing the form a collaboration could take – collaborative events or online collaboration.

Another similar project was a source of inspiration – and early advice to us: meedan.net. Their goal is to promote dialogue between the English- and Arab-speaking world, with a focus on news and events in the Middle East. Their website offers various articles about an event, from English or Arabic language sources, with automatic translation improved by users. Comment threads themselves appear in bilingual format.

So this is where we fit in the landscapes. These are the closest knots to us in the fabric of the web. For more general inspiration, we should finally quote Wikipedia, and their work on crowd-sourcing knowledge organisation and translation.

Can you think of other websites we should add to the list? Please, send us their reference, we’d love to learn about them!

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

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 pozible.com/marcopoloproject.

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 pozible.com/marcopoloproject.

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 pozible.com/marcopoloproject

One question that often arises about our model is: “How will we control the quality of our translations?” Behind this question lies a specific fear that we will misinform people by providing erroneous translations, but also a more general anxiety that writing should always be somehow approved and authorized by a  ‘competent expert’.

The short answer I like to give is: “We won’t, but we’ll indicate how adequate a translation is by a colour code.” I’d like to reflect a bit more on the question, and start giving the long answer.

A translator is a mediator between reader and writer, converting a text written in a certain language into a new linguistic artefact which – ideally – will conjure up the same vision and elicit the same reaction in its reader as the original would in those accessing the original.

Some things are lost in translation. Subtle rhythms and echoes, an immediate sense of aesthetic beauty. Subtle patterns of implicit allusions and memories that come from a shared linguistic universe between reader and writer. And concepts unique to a given culture or language, which do not directly translate, or require long-winded explanations. In other words, accessing a text in translation is likely to reduce the sense of immediate comprehension and resonance.

But some things can be gained in translation. Mediated experiences are no less enriching than immediate ones. A translated text combines familiarity – the language is that of the reader, after all – and exoticism – the names, places, experiences, come from a mental universe usually not accessible to the reader. Reading a translation is a mediated way of experiencing the mental landscape of a person living in a different language and culture. And such an experience can have a powerful impact.

Whether translated or not, writing can be misinterpreted. “A wealth of interpretative possibilities” is considered by some as the touchstone of quality literature; others will judge a piece of writing by how clear it is. And some writers voluntarily produce misleading texts, shaping their description of events and facts in order to bring about a certain emotional or moral reaction among readers.

In any case, meaning is constructed through an act of interpretation, which can succeed, or fail. But failure can take two very different forms. One I would call plain failure – when a reader cannot derive any meaning, or satisfactory meaning, from a text, and just leaves it down, frustrated and confused. The other I would call error – when a reader’s interpretation does generate meaning, but that meaning is widely different, or even opposed to, that intended by the writer, or commonly derived by a majority of readers.

Bad writing and bad translation can lead to both. The reader’s competence, attitude and effort will dtermine which occurs. And the role of the ‘publisher’ – in our case, Marco Polo Project – is to both increase the quality of writing and translation in order to improve successful reading experiences, but also influence the reader to avoid both plain interpretation failure, and error.

Our new interface will offer readers the possibility to read texts in bilingual format. By presenting texts in both languages, side by side, we make the mediated nature of the translated version explicit, thereby encouraging a more cautious reading, but also enabling the reader to more fully experience the delightful exoticism of writing originally produced in a radically different code – with characters instead of alphabet – and direct access to a Chinese subjectivity.

A colour code will also mark how advanced each translation is. ‘Doubtful’ passages will appear in a different colours. And users with experience on the platform will ‘validate’ a translation paragraph by paragraph. These methods will not directly increase the quality of the translation, but indicate to the reader where the potential interpretation pitfalls lie, and therefore allow them to either ‘skip’ dangerous passages, to reduce the risk of frustration, or read them with care and suspicion, to reduce the risk of error.

Beside, we will create incentives – in the form of point systems, badges, and systematic engagement – encouraging more expert users to review and improve existing translations, in order to improve the overall quality of our text library.

So the short-long answer to the question “How will we monitor the quality of our translations” is: by making their mediated status more explicit, and ensuring that the design of our reading interface will assist readers in their interpretative endeavour, to minimise the risk or error or frustration, and maximize the delight of accessing the mental world of a Chinese subject.


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

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 coursera.org (https://www.coursera.org/course/gamification) by Kevin Werbach, and would strongly encourage everyone to have a look.

Here is a module we don’t have yet, but would like to develop: a feature allowing our users to report inappropriate contents, and a process to have it reviewed by editors – offering initial submitters and translators a chance to defend it.

Note: the process as it is described here could become a loop, until original submitters or translators accept to leave the text aside. It could be proposed (and indicated in emails) that text is automatically discarded after two loops.