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Translators Wanted at LinkedIn. The Pay? $0 an Hour.

Monday, June 29, 2009

About half of the 42 million members of LinkedIn, the online professional networking Web site, are outside the United States, and to further expand internationally, the company hopes to be translated into more than its current four languages — English, Spanish, French and German. But when LinkedIn asked thousands of its translator members to complete a survey this month that asked whether they would consider volunteering to translate the site into other languages, many said “nyet.”


Chris Irwin, who lives outside London, was irked by the third multiple-choice question, which asked what “incentive” translators would prefer, with five nonmonetary choices including an upgraded LinkedIn account and none (“because it’s fun”). Mr. Irwin checked a sixth choice, “Other,” typing in that he would prefer cash. In a phone interview, Mr. Irwin said he was surprised that LinkedIn “would have the effrontery to ask for a professional service for free.”

Another translator, Matthew Bennett, who is based in Murcia in Spain, started a group on LinkedIn for those annoyed by the survey, and it swelled to about 300.

Some translators are upset because LinkedIn showed “an enormous amount of disrespect towards them and their work from a networking site for professionals where ‘relationships matter,’ ” wrote Mr. Bennett on his personal blog, referring to one of LinkedIn’s marketing slogans.

But LinkedIn insists that the interpreters are, well, misinterpreting.

Nico Posner, the LinkedIn product manager who circulated the survey, declined to be interviewed but in a post to Mr. Bennett’s group wrote that the survey was not asking translators to volunteer per se. He said he was trying to find out whether they would consider “crowd sourcing,” borrowing the term applied to companies like Wikipedia that rely on volunteers’ collective wisdom.

“While I realize that many professionals in the translation and localization field will not be interested in participating in a crowd sourcing opportunity on LinkedIn,” Mr. Posner wrote, others “would welcome an opportunity to volunteer some of their time and skills towards translating the LinkedIn site and highlight their professional work on their LinkedIn profile, not only for pride and glory, but hopefully to land more paid work.”

In a post on LinkedIn’s company blog, Mr. Posner added that thousands of respondents said they would volunteer, especially if credited on the site.

“I didn’t feel cheapened or exploited at all when they asked,” said Erika Baker, of North Somerset, England. “I just thought, ‘Wow what an opportunity.’ ” A translator for more than 15 years, Ms. Baker said that she had rarely been credited as she would be on the LinkedIn project and that she was certain it would bring in paying work.

“These are new ways of marketing, and the Internet is really the way to go,” Ms. Baker said.

Recently a group of illustrators took umbrage when Google asked them to provide free artwork to feature on its Chrome browser; Google countered that it was offering free exposure and that dozens of other artists had signed on.

In 2007, Facebook asked volunteers to offer translations of the standard explanatory language throughout the site into more than 20 languages, with translators voting among themselves for preferred verbiage. Some faulted the company, saying it was shortchanging translators.

But Nataly Kelly, a former Spanish translator who is an analyst at Common Sense Advisory, a research firm that studies how companies translate, said that Facebook’s critics had missed the big picture.

“It would have been far cheaper for Facebook to pay translators 10 cents a word to translate material than to build a community and pay engineers to set up all this infrastructure,” said Ms. Kelly, who volunteered on the Facebook project herself, casting a vote on such head-scratchers as what to call the Facebook profile “wall,” since in Spanish there are different words for interior and exterior walls.

Web sites may expand using volunteer translators, but they often also pay for work, not only in editing and proofreading the volunteers’ efforts, but also in translating content that requires less local flavor and more legal precision, like privacy policies, Ms. Kelly said.

But Ms. Kelly is sympathetic to translators, who “are often taken advantage of and paid late if at all,” and said LinkedIn had acted undiplomatically.

“It might have been more appropriate for LinkedIn to make it very clear what kind of process this was, and the fact that they employ full-time translators, to appease the fears of translators,” Ms. Kelly said. “That would have prevented a lot of the backlash.”

 

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