Below is the May edition of the Marco Polo Project newsletter.
To subscribe, please contact us at
You can also follow us on twitter @mpoloproject.


Our web development team has been working hard on a series of new features that will improve the translation experience dramatically. We’re testing them on our development site this very moment, and the next newsletter should invite you to trial them.

As a result, our project is growing! We’re seeking new volunteers to join our editorial, business and engagement teams. If you would like to be part of our project, or know someone who might, please have a look at this page , or pass on the word!


In the last month, our readership expanded to new regions of the world. An interview with Sapore di Cina attracted readers from Italy, while this Russian version of a piece by Hacking Chinese on the use of translation for language learning attracted a number of readers from Russia.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we’re beginning discussions to develop stronger partnerships in Adelaide and Sydney, with universities and through workshops. These are still in early stages, but by the end of 2013, we hope to develop a stronger presence interstate.


Have you ever wondered about youth subcultures in China? This article introduces the ‘ShaMaTe’, a sub-cultural movement inspired by Western punk and Japanese manga aesthetics. ‘ShaMaTe’ culture can be interpreted as an attempt by rural migrants to integrate urban codes, and contrasted with the rich and urban ‘fresh young things’ movement.

Is there a topic you’d like to read about in translation? Suggest it at

 Help Us Grow

The Marco Polo Project is a living online community. Without you, we do not exist. Now we need your help to grow. So that a larger audience can learn about us, please talk about the Marco Polo Project around you, send a link to your friends, or share our translations on Facebook, Twitter, Renren or Weibo.
We are also looking for donations and sponsorships, to support further web development. If you think you can help, please contact us at

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Below is the March edition of the Marco Polo Project newsletter. To subscribe, please contact us at You can also follow us on twitter @mpoloproject.

Our first wave of development is over. Back-end improvements have already made the work of our editors more efficient. On the front-end, a filter now allows readers and translators to select texts by language and level of completion.

Again, we would like to thank all generous supporters of our first pozible campaign. And we’re now looking forward to further improvements.

Our online community has come offline, with regular translation workshops run in partnership with Language Connection. To join one, or for more details, look at LC’s facebook or meetup page!

In line with the success of these workshops, we’re now exploring possible partnerships with the Arrow Building on Swanston Street, Foundation for Young Australian’s ‘Young People without Borders’, and La Trobe University.

Are you curious to see the results of collaborative translation efforts? In our first two workshops, we translated this text about friends having small children, and this text about starting a PhD late in life.

Is there a topic you’d like to read in translation? You can email us a suggestion at If participants like it, we may choose it for one of our future workshops.

 Help Us Grow
The Marco Polo Project is a living online community. Without you, we do not exist. Now we need your help to grow.

So that a larger audience can learn about us, please talk about the Marco Polo Project around you, send a link to your friends, or share our translations on Facebook, Twitter, Renren or Weibo.We are also looking for donations and sponsorships, to support further web development. If you think you can help, please contact us at

The Marco Polo Project

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Below is the February edition of the Marco Polo Project newsletter. To subscribe, please contact us at You can also follow us on twitter @mpoloproject.


Our website is getting more interactive! If you find a passage particularly difficult to translate, just send a tweet with #mppolo and a link to the text and paragraph number. Your tweet will appear on the website widget column.

Other improvements are under way. A text filter and Chinese tags will come up in the next few weeks, and back-end im-provements will increase our work efficiency..


Starting Saturday 23rd February, Marco Polo Project will run weekly translation workshops in partnership with Language Connection, offering language learners an opportunity to deepen understanding of Chinese language and culture in a social setting. More details available on this facebook group.

A Taipei translation group is also starting soon. For more information, please contact


Ever wondered about the writers of our texts? We’ve started developing biographies, a project led by Hannah ‘Shengui’ Theaker from Taipei. When you read a text, simply click on the name of an author below the title to find out who they are.

An author you’re interested in has no biography yet? We’re working on it – but you can help us by pasting a text in the comments section, or send us a suggestions via email:

 Help Us Grow

The Marco Polo Project is a living online community. Without you, we do not exist. Now we need your help to grow.

So that a larger audience can learn about us, please talk about the Marco Polo Project around you, send a link to your friends, or share our translations on Facebook, Twitter, Renren or Weibo.We are also looking for donations and sponsorships, to support further web development. If you think you can help, please contact us at

The Marco Polo Project

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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

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: 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: 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!

We are currently running our first crowd-funding campaign on Please, have a look at our page and video at and if you like it, consider supporting us, or sending the link around to your friends and networks.

We’re  hoping to raise $3000 by Christmas to pay for a full set of improvements. Our goal is to make our website more appealing to translators by gamifying parts of the translation process, as well as increase interaction among users and improve progress monitoring systems.

Over the next few weeks, we will post a number of posts on this blog to better articulate our vision and value-proposition, so keep an eye on this blog. All comments welcome!


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.

At present, when users submit a text to us, they fill in a ‘wordpress form’, and the information they fill in is sent to our corporate inbox. Someone from the team needs to manually update the contents onto the website.

We would like to develop a module that makes this process automatic. Here is a flowchart for the process as we would like to implement it.