One is glad to be of service: On collaborative subtitling

Over at Doing good: the edgeryders’ community makes our video global Alberto described my creating subtitles for his video as an act of kindness, and mentioned something about commitment.


Let me introduce you to the Dark Truth.

I was merely scratching an itch …

That’s an expression used in the Free (as in Libre) Software world. You do something to solve your own problem, and if that helps others, well, you may feel a bit better, but oh, what a bliss when that itch is gone!

My itch was that I wanted to understand what this EdgeRyders’ thing was about. Not a pass-me-by understanding, but a deeper one. And translating and blogging about whatever you’re interested in, well, it does the trick for me.

I also had another itch. I wanted to show one of my favourite tools to others. You know, just like chimps show off by shaking trees that make interesting sounds. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it’s definitely an itch. Interesting stuff hurts if not shared. (Why Nature wanted to do that to us is probably an interesting question in itself. But I disgress.)

Finally, I’m always curious about how lazily I can do something.

What I did …

1) First, I went to, created a page with a link to Alberto’s video, and added a sentence about needing help to do the transcription. My idea was I’d tell people through twitter, see if people would come over, and start transcribing together.

You know how: you land on the piratepad page, look for some untranscribed chunk, and type. If you’re tired, even if only a little bit, you can look at what others are typing in real time, and correct their typos right behind them.

How do I describe it? It’s a constructive mess! I did it once, and it was really exhilarating. In 40 minutes we transcribed 4 minutes of video, but we were simultaneously doing other things, it was mostly two people, and I wanted to test if we could do better …

This time … I waited for a full 5 minutes, and no-one came.

2) While I waited, I transcribed a few sentences. “Strong Italian accent, similar in a way to Spanish, sounds doable.” But stressful if done on your own, because you get no feedback, it’s all very much a straight line like a boring motorway, boring, boring …

Then I saw the red “CC” at the bottom of the youtube video. For some unkown reason, some videos have that button, while most don’t. It gives you automatic transcription, a fine feature which would be much cooler if you could download the transcription, but you can’t. Anyway, maybe … yes, I could type what came up on the screen, and save myself a bunch of time. Again this question: how easy can it get?

I found I could do one pass, and then another, and in 15 minutes I had transcribed most of the text.

3) Now, transcribing “most of the text” is not a good thing. You can’t use that, and yet you know the last 5% can take for ever, so you need a way out.

I took the unfinished text to Alberto and friends, and kindly asked for help, putting on my best Shrek’s Cat face, and hoping someone might be tempted to fill in the gaps.

Alberto himself did, and I’m grateful for that.

4) Now, I had created a problem for myself. I had this transcription, and I knew turning it into subtitles was not far away. Who do I hand this to? No-one in sight but myself. “Oh, fractal cheese!”, I muttered. “Ok, ok, I’ll take just one more step.”

(I had to. “Had to”, means the next step is so easy as to be compelling, right? There’s a lesson there, I’m sure. “Build systems that make it easy to contribute”, or something of that sort.)

So I went to Universal Subtitles, where I did have an account already, added the link to Alberto’s video, moved the text to the proper place, spent about 10 minutes synchronising it without aiming for perfection, because perfction is incompatible with life, and watched it once more, full of pride.

I knew the hard part was over.

5) After subtitles are synchronised - i.e., the written words match the spoken words - translating doesn’t take much time. Maybe 15 minutes, plus one more minute to look up some hard words using google “hard-word english spanish”.

Now I had a link to share!

Now, step 6) is for other people.  Whoever wants, in whatever language, can do their own 15 minutes, or even a smaller part of that if they want to stop at whatever point in the process.

So far, not counting English (which Alberto finished) and Spanish (which I did), 3.25 new translations have been created by people I don’t know. Yes, that’s 5.25 languages done.

If what I put in was, all in all, around 45 minutes, that means my contribution has been matched by 3.25 x 15 minutes = almost 49 minutes from other people. It’s no longer my thing! Yippie!

Soon, if more languages are done, people will have donated 100 or 200 minutes, effectively dwarfing my initial contribution.  A real Stone Soup story!

Which brings us to …

Some thoughts and questions

I scrached my itch: learned about EdgeRyders, blogged in my own language, and learned how the red “CC” button really speeds things up (though it could be better).

We may or may not see 5 or 10 or 20 translations, and I really don’t care that much. The game, for me, is over. It’s Harvest Time!

What we have is yet another instance of the “voluntary cooperation” model: one minute at a time, and one line at a time. Learning (or telling) something as we go. Always doing exactly what’s easy for us, and what we feel like doing.

Could we do more things like this? What’s wrong with this model? What are the limitations? What would you add to the model? Is it simpler than it looks?

How far will the community go?

Great initiative. Thanks a lot.

I did the translation in French. You made me discover Universal Subtitles. It’s really user friendly, I had no problem at all completing the translation. I’m excited about this tool, and will suggest it to partners and collaborators.

I’m glad that this community initiative is doing well. Already 7 languages. One of my friends, Marc Garriga (@mgarrigap) did a translation in Catalan tonight. Over the Holidays, my Tunisian friends promised me they’d complete a translation in Arabic. The problem is that they don’t read or speak English… So they have no way of editing the text properly.

I am really curious to see how far this experiment will go… How many languages? Ah, how exciting!!!

The power of cooperation. Translating without English. How far?

Glad you like it, Lyne! Yes it is powerful, innit? My guess is it will become even more powerful in the future.

I hate transcribing and translating for periods longer than 1-5 minutes. In my experience, the interest lies in telling other people about the subject you’re translating (just as we like sharing news and gossip, but with a translation element), and there’s friction between that and the roughness of the work itself.

Making it cooperative worked very well with this: Do click on the yellow “Time Slider”, and then “rewind and play” as you would do with a movie, to watch what happened. I’m soooo glad Cesca (@medic on twitter) came along - that really changed everything! (The second dancer does sustain the first chimp, I guess.)

In general, as a user of the system, it’s important to make it easy to contribute, and that’s what I think will get better in time. Like many others, I’ve daydreamed about having dictionaries, glossaries and live chat at hand. Slowly, slowly! :wink:


I don’t know if another language can be used as your starting point. I mean, maybe the original is in English, but if I did Spanish and you speak Spanish, can you translate from Spanish? I don’t know, but if someone finds out, please tell us.

One other thing is, there’s the option, at Universal Subtitles, of requesting an automatic translation to start from. Not perfect, but lets you have something.

It’s quite likely that, if the stuff you’re putting some effort into is worth it, other people will jump in later to improve on what you did. If not - well, you only did what you wanted to do, right?


How far can we go?

I don’t know, and thinking about that usually paralises me.

One line at a time. At most.

That’s what spoons are for.

Translate from… other language?

Hi Lucas and all,

I was doing the translation into Romanian and have to say, it was easy and quick, but that’s because someone like you took the effort to bring the tool and set it up. The rest of us only followed a couple of instructions… so even when you say " It’s no longer my thing!", it actually is. At least you have to be credited for initiating this collaborative effort.

I don’t know if another language can be used as your starting point. I mean, maybe the original is in English, but if I did Spanish and you speak Spanish, can you translate from Spanish? I don’t know, but if someone finds out, please tell us. 

Do you mean if I want to translate into X from a language other than English? You can do that selecting from the translations already available. Once you go to Add new translation you select a language (say Arabic) -> press Continue and then select a language in Translate from field.

hey hope we get to do this again sometime!


Changing pivot language is possible! Good!

Noemi, I’m glad it’s possible to change what I think is called the pivot language: the language you take as reference to translate from. Good find!

About having to be credited, well, it does give me a warm feeling, but, I’m not sure, would I do it without it? Probably it’s the kind of thing that’s effective in minuscule doses, like vitamins. Just above zero is possibly enough. Just the ocassional feedback so as not to fly blind. (Or maybe I’m just fooling myself and I crave for it. :shrug: ;-))

Again, I feel this is all about designing, nah, evolving systems where we as individuals can both contribute and gain something in the process. Europe might use more of that for resilience (food, water, energy), joy (caring, creativity), etc.

Of packetizable processes and collaboration

Not only generous - insightful too! Your mission report, Lucas, is a crash course in collaboration. What I am learning:

  • collaborating can and should be easy
  • when it is easy it is compelling: in your words, interesting stuff hurts if not shared.
  • designing for collaboration is about making it easy
  • a lot of "easy" means "packetizable". I can translate my line in relative independence from you translating yours. This means that you and I do not have to worry about each other: the system itself provides some coherence.
We can and should do more things like this. However, I don't think that the model should be pushed too far. Because, you see, really interesting problems are not fully packetizable. Packets interact; the whole is vastly more than the sum of the parts. Edgeryders itself is an attempt at partial packetization: we are looking at the very big, very entangled problem of the transition of youth to an independent active life. We split up the observation part in discrete packets, the quanta of experience brought by each Edgeryder with each mission and each comment. But in the end, someone needs to do a synthesis, and that someone needs to go through all of the materials on the platform and aggregate them. I am afraid this will have to be done in the old-fashioned, hard way. So collaboration in Edgeryders is packetizable (relatively easy) at the observation level, but not at the synthesis level.

Anyway, I am very proud of the subtitles to the Edgeryders video. Thanks! :slight_smile:

parallelisable or not

Yes, some things are parallelisable - done by many working in parallel - while others aren’t so easy to parallelise, or impossible.

Transcription and translation, up to a certain point, fall into the “parallelisable” category. Of course, if you’ve ever tried it, you’ll see how certain issues need to be ironed out among several translators, for consistency and style. But the chunks of work are discrete and, well, ants can do it.

Synthesising, on the other hand, is hard work, as is designing from scratch: you need to keep at least large chunks of the problem in one head, to be able to make the connections.

Thinking about what’s parallelisable seems to take a non-parallelised mind. :slight_smile:

From a policy point of view, I wonder what kind of problems edgeryders tend to face, and in how many parallelisation would play a beneficial role. An open question …

Translated Out of Poverty subtitles. & Found optional stimergy!

Someone from Paul Polak’s team typed the transcript, I ported it to universalsubtitles (now amara), and translated it into Spanish.

Here it is:

Lesson learnt? Having the transcript is good. And the software for collaboration is getting better, though I’d still add a couple of things, probably, if I think about it. For example, when I uploaded the transcript it landed in the Spanish area by default. So the editor, and the navigation, could be a bit simpler.

Not complaining. It’s just that you want to adjust the length of the sleeves … only if you want the jacket to start with.

So yes, making cooperation easier is important.

Oh, and I found the text that puts words to my feelings on cooperation. Stimergic collaboration: It’s about dealing with the terrain, not with the people. I mean, it’s not that I’m autistic - I like conversations - but much of the time it’s about working with the terrain itself, interpreting signals left by others, and leaving traces for others to act on.

That way, we can leave friendship for other hours of the day; have two kinds of meaningful activities, not one; and move around with whatever instantaneous level of friendliness we happen to have right now - and the same for everyone. Makes sense?

(Afterthought. Now I can put into words what made me uneasy about “hippy types”. Not meant as an insult. Just as a description. Some people like friendship first, and work is done on the side. Most of the time, I find I focus on the task, and the human interaction is nice but takes some energy, so it’s something I’d rather leave to cool off so I may focus. A matter of percentages and degrees, I guess. #ThingsSlowOnesLearnAt50.)

(I think it’s just that we all have different Dunbar numbers.’s_number )