Billion Word Bonanza

Movie subtitles can annoy--as visual clutter--when you don't need them, but they are a godsend for the deaf and anyone watching a foreign language film. Now a devoted group of 200,000 volunteer video subbers on Viki.com have elevated the humble subtitle to an art form. They spin lines that span the planet in 210 distinct tongues, from ABC (Aymara, Basque, Chamorro) to XYZ (Xhosa, Yiddish, Zulu). Not done for a dime, but as a labor of love, these video subbers' painstaking work connects cultures that previously glanced at each other only in passing. Obscure Korean dramas and a plethora of global pop-videos are avidly viewed in Guam (titled in Chamorro), in Zimbabwe (titled in KiBemba), and anywhere in between.

Viki's wordsters took five years to scale the billion word mountain peak, and the subbing community is rightly celebrating. This milestone gives people like me--fascinated by the technologizing of languages, wondering if true translation is possible, or if the whole world won't just wind up speaking English and call it a day--some points to ponder.

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But first, exactly how much is a billion words? According to The Human Footprint, an average Jane utters 123,205,750 words in her lifetime. She would need to reincarnate seven times (at 4,300 words per day, for 78.5 years), to be a billion word speaker. The Bible--our most widely translated book ever--can be read in 511 languages, but all those Bibles stacked up would contain just 412 million words, a lower mountain peak.

A billion words may seem small next to the millions of phrases flipped daily by Google Translate, Bing Translate, and other artificial brains. But machine output resembles human-powered translation only about as much as a vibrating "massage" chair simulates a full-body workover by a reflexology master. When machines "translate", they rip through text using statistical algorithms to produce a plausible (but often laughably errorful and clunky) text sans context. Besides, machines can only simulate translation after being fed millions of lines of aligned parallel text (for example, Moby Dick in English and Swahili), a prized honey produced only by the human hive mind.

When a skilled bilingual human translates, she engages brain, body, emotion, life experience, and gut feeling. She weighs each syllable, ponders each nuance, finesses each phrase. She frequently peers into the void of "there's no word for that", and flounders in the bog of idioms. But her work is real human thought expressed humanly, and cannot be machine-mimicked, either stylistically or syntactically. If there is a point on the tech horizon where artifice will surpass translation's art, it is likely no nearer than when robots start painting Picassos and sculpting Rodins.

Translators accrue social benefit by joining a global volunteer effort. Viki.com contributor Amy Pun from Canada writes: "Since I love watching dramas and movies so much, I feel that I should try and help others understand and enjoy...." Amy's reward lies in "...being able to interactively communicate with other members of the community and contribute your expertise for the benefit of every viewer from different parts of the world. It feels like a sense of accomplishment."

Subtitles also enable active learning. Lois Friel, a grandmother from Pennsylvania writes: "One of my favorite comedies is 'Protect the Boss.' While watching with French subtitles, I learned a lot of office phrases that I may not have learned otherwise. It has really helped me read French at a greater comprehension level...And if I don't quite understand a word or a phrase, I can pause it and switch to English. It's better than Google Translate!"

Inscribed in the digisphere--in the form of millions of humble movie subtitles--are ideas, humor, pathos, the banal and the profound. Though quite fragile (because digital), these words could well outlast us all, a time capsule bearing bits of culture to the future. In a distant future era, or perhaps on another planet, beings (un)like us may glimpse the struggles and achievements of 21st century humans in a Korean romantic drama. If they do not understand spoken Korean, they may need to rely on the English subtitles, a rosetta stone from the past.