Global Dialogue and Social Translation

Meedan, or “gathering place” in Arabic, is the name of a social translation and community-building project for English and Arabic speakers. The online network provides a free and interactive translation service to all who register. Registered users can also create profiles and connect with others based on similar interests, and/or location regardless of language differences. Comments, news articles, and blog posts are translated from the user’s native language using an evolving Machine Translation service.

Meedan is a unique online experience because it provides another service in addition to translation. Users can search for information with simple visual tools, by clicking on a map for instance, or by browsing featured conversations with related articles and blog posts all on one page. On the world events page, users can add comments, media links, or start a new conversation as well. Current conversations will change over time but right now range from the first Kuwaiti women police officers to Muslim councils in UK.

Since Meedan is based upon a hybrid network of humans and computers, the conversation relies on both machine translation and human correction to function properly. The Meedan translation team complements a machine translation protocol developed by IBM. The plan is to improve machine translations by integrating input from actual interactive experiences on the network and users’ suggestions. As the network grows, translation tools will evolve as well.

Over time, services will improve to the extent that Arabic and English-speakers can and want to interact with each other. Indeed, Meedan has come up with innovative ways to make social interaction as easy as possible and to add value to the experience. The network service saves users search time and at least gives them more time to do the work of connecting with each other and improving the reach and scope of global dialogue. This work involves leaving comments, sending direct messages to other users, posting one’s own thoughts, inviting friends to the network, and sharing articles with others for instance.

Meedan gives users the ability to cross the language barrier, but can it provide the tools and incentives to attract users and encourage them to be social despite the growing pains involved in bridging cultures? Yes, I believe it can. As I mentioned above, a big incentive is Meedan’s unique conversation style interface. People can navigate articles and events themselves by clicking on a country or region and viewing current activity. After browsing, they can click on one item, and a page will open up with the article, related content, and recommended background articles from other sites and media outlets.

Meedan offers a new way to search information in English and Arabic without spending hours on Google search engines, making sense of robotic-sounding machine translations, or filtering through the 40-some million international blogs in this way. Sure, it doesn’t fix these problems entirely. The translation service has to be tweaked and users will have to jump in and take the lead in adding content. Meedan’s design, however is tailor-made for global dialogue and to be interactive-friendly. Surely, these challenges will be met in part as the network grows.

All of this is an ambitious undertaking in itself, but translation is only the project’s initial focus. Next, the Meedan team will work to tailor the user-developed tools to meet the goals of partner organizations like Teachers Without Borders and other educational and diplomatic programs. In fact, the team of translators is currently working on a Firefox plugin according to this article from the Guardian UK.

Meedan is a “multi-cultural, non-partisan, non-ideological” organization according its own mission statement but could be used to advance the missions of a range of other organizations. Can online networks fuel real-life social change? What would it take for users to become invested in Meedan’s success? Last, is there a danger that if such services are successful, they might be used to advance the goals of radical or extremist organizations as well?

Is it global dialogue possible and is it beneficial? Share your thoughts in a comment below or send us an email with your thoughts.

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