An interview with Penn Annenberg on the crowdsourced translation of my first book "Fandom Publics" (full text attached)
Many thanks to my Alma Mater Annenberg School for Communication at UPenn for the interview on the crowdsourced translation of my book! See the interview here:
1. To confirm, you graduated from the Annenberg School with your PhD in 2008? What topic is your PhD in?
Yes, I graduated from Annenberg School in 2008 and my dissertation was titled “Deliberation and the Disempowered: Access, Experience and Influence”. My research area falls into civic engagement and new media. My advisor from Penn was Provost Vincent Price.
2. Can you summarize what your book is about, and what new research findings you include in it?
This book looks at the various purposes of internet use among Chinese, and provides a study about how the entertainment-consuming users form into publics through the mediation of technologies in the era of network society. The book goes on to focus on how fans, including movie fans, fans of foreign reality TV shows and TV dramas, fans who took a step further to translate and disseminate such foreign language content, and fans whose fan objects are celebrities instead of cultural products, become publics in a society that follows the logic of network. The resources I have relied on in this book are mainly first-hand and longitudinal (15 years) data from the fans themselves, including both their discourses and their online/offline activities.
3. Was your book published by a U.S. company? Why did your publisher not just put out a Chinese translation?
The book was published by Routledge, a multi-nation corporate. Most Routledge academic books are only in English and for market reasons, the cost is often too high for them to publish a first book of a scholar in languages other than English. But to be fair to Routledge, I was the one who requested to keep the copyright of the Chinese version of the book because I already wanted to try some new modes of academic publication at the time of preparing this book.
4. How did you know about CNPolitics? Were you a reader before meeting Kecheng Fang?
I came across CNPolitics through Chinese Internet when they published brief and rather easy to understand summaries of China-related research in Chinese language. And around November 2013, one of the CNPolitics contributors approached me for getting the permission to translate an article I and my co-author Chengting Mao published in Chinese Journal of Communication. The article is about the online translation community in China and eventually became a chapter in this book. You can say that I am already a reader and a collaborator before meeting Kecheng in person.
5. Why did you decide that CNPolitics was a good partner for this type of translation project?
Since the first contact in 2013, I started paying regular attention to CNPolitics’ updates. Their translation, although not always perfect, has this particular strength of capturing significant contemporary issues in China and introducing the research findings to Chinese netizens in approachable language. I did also contact some other Chinese online translation communities such as Yeeyan and considered working with commercial websites such as Douban. But Yeeyan did not get back to me about my proposal and Douban appeared to be too commercial after I studied their publication mechanism. I felt CNPolitics’ mechanism maintains the civic spirit I have seen during my research work on Chinese online translation communities and especially after meeting Kecheng in person, I believed that the team is capable of handling this task.
6. Did you approach Kecheng and CNPolitics with the crowdsourcing idea?
Yes I approached Kecheng and CNPolitics in 2015 summer when I had the opportunity to visit Penn’s Beijing Center (thanks to the invitation from Prof. Delli Carpini and Prof. Yang Guobin!). It was actually my first time to know that Kecheng is the founder of CNPolitics and we started chatting about one of his most popular articles circulated online. To be honest, the chat was very informal and I don’t even remember at which exact moment, this crowdsourcing idea was brought up and agreed upon. A few nice meals in Beijing did the magic trick, I guess. :)
7. How exactly was the crowdsourcing approach different from the usual translation process?
To borrow Yeeyan’s founder’s description, our approach is hierarchical crowdsourcing. This approach has a few features:
Some may question the quality of translation when a crowd is engaged. I feel that this is a misreading of “crowdsourcing”. Look at the profiles of our translators. Majority of them are graduate students and a few are currently studying at British or American universities. I do not see them as low-quality crowds. I feel that the essence of this translation process is to break the project into smaller tasks and assign them to multiple individuals. The challenge lies less in the quality of multiple individuals than in the assembly of tasks and the coordination among translators. Fortunately, technologies have made such coordination much easier than before.
8. Kecheng says that it took the translators 6 weeks to come up with a first draft of the book. Is that quicker than a typical translation?
Yes I believe so. According to the quotations I got from professional translation services, translating the book of this length takes at least 3 months.
9. Kecheng also says that you obtained funding from the National University of Singapore, where you teach, in order to pay the translators for their services. Was this a grant? For how much money? Why did you feel it was important to pay the translators for their work?
It was a book grant NUS has given me to support the publication of this particular book. I paid a lump sum of SGD8000 to the team, which, compared to the quotations I got from professional translation services, was the lowest. The translators were all doing this along with their busy schedule of working or studying. I did feel that if I have the resources, why not compensate them for the time and effort they put into this?
10. What research do you include in your book about crowdsourcing? How is that research relevant to the translation project?
Chapter 5 in this book focuses on crowdsourced translation of foreign content found on Chinese Internet. This is also the chapter which elicited CNPolitics’ interest when it was first published in Chinese Journal of Communication. This research put the idea of crowdsourced translation in my mind and the process of hierarchical crowdsourcing is very much similar to some of the cases we described in that article. Even in terms of the civic spirit, this translation project is pretty much in line with many translation communities introduced in this article.
11. I know the Chinese-language e-book will be available to download for free from the CNPolitics website. Doesn’t that eliminate any money you might make from a Chinese translation? Why did you choose to let readers download this for free?
I have never seen the purpose of publishing this book, regardless of English or Chinese versions, as making money. As a scholar, I have long been frustrated by the fact that my academic writing is only read by a few academic readers. As much as I appreciate the professionalism held by the academic circle, I felt that my research did not contribute much back to the environment that allowed it to happen. By providing this e-book for free, I wish firstly, more readers can access and benefit from this book; and secondly, the online fans communities I have spent years researching about would also obtain this text without any barriers.
In addition, academic publication itself is in crisis. Universities libraries pay high prices to publishers to get works done by their employees who are fully paid by the university not the publisher. This made academic publications costly and inaccessible to majority of the public. Many open-source journals can be seen as attempts to address this problem. However, the credibility of such open-source venues is sometimes questionable. I want to try this self-publication mode to see whether it could balance the challenges of accessibility and credibility.
In short, I am trying to do some “action research”, research that is not just academic but also helps with solving real problems.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.