I’ve thought a lot about translation and multilingual sharing online in text environments (blogs, Wikipedia, social networking sites), but I’m reminded how quickly platforms change on the web, and text-only exchanges seem outdated considering YouTube has been around for 5 years now and the prevalence of online video has only increased with Internet speeds. So, one major media format to consider in cross-lingual sharing is online video.

Early this year, YouTube announced it would use voice recognition (speech-to-text) to subtitle all its English-language videos, which can be helpful to foreign language speakers of English (Shimogori, et al. 2010) as well as hearing impaired individuals. It doesn’t seem much of a leap to allow for correction of these subtitles and machine or human translation of them. YouTube does support uploading subtitles, but I wasn’t aware of an easy way to create these until recently.

Two tools, dotSUB and Universal Subtitles provide an easy way to transcribe and translate speech in videos. Neither site uses machine translation or voice recognition, but both provide the opportunity for crowd/social transcription and translation of videos. Videos can then be viewed with subtitles and embedded around the web or viewed directly on each platform.

Both seem good tools. dotSUB has been around for a number of years and seems more established and less buggy, but Universal Subtitles provides some nice new features. While videos are hosted on dotSUB, Universal Subtitles uses JavaScript to simply overlay text on top of videos hosted elsewhere. This seems especially useful for translating videos when a user does not have access to the original video file to upload it (again). Since Universal Subtitles does not actually host videos, but simply adds text alongside (over) existing videos, I would hope that any video freely viewable online could be used with this tool. The technology allows this, but the legal implications are not clear since (as We Blog the World correctly point out) a subtitled video is a derivative work protected by copyright law and thus requires the permission of the copyright holder. I agree, however, with We Blog the World’s argument that “Universal Subtitles as a tool does not produce subtitled videos; rather they facilitate a way for viewers to lay a text file over an already existing video.”

In any case, these two communities of subtitlers and translators provide an exciting new possibility for multilingual sharing. The standard caveats of crowd sourcing and needing to keep an engaged community apply, but I think these tools have great potential. I particularly thought about a tool along these lines when I was teaching English in Japan. One reason for delays in broadcasting foreign TV in Japan, I was told, is the process of subtitling and translating. I thought transcribing and translating a video would be a perfect real-world application for my English students, and it could actually save a content-producer money by giving a rough translation to be checked/editted later by professional translators if needed. I realize it may be some time before broadcasters move from blocking Hulu, iPlayer, etc. internationally to actually trying to capture some of the great potential of a geographically and linguistically diverse viewership online. I’m happy to say TED is using dotSUB to translate their talks (albeit with a more oversight than the general crowd sourced free-for-all approach).

For these sites to actually have an impact, another challenge is actually having a diverse viewership. In this respect, some changes could be made to make it easier to find videos. If you choose to search on dotSUB, for example, you will have to search the title of the video you want in its original language, because the titles themselves are not actually translated. Integration/recognition by an existing video hosting platform (e.g. YouTube) could bring even more viewers. Social networking sites, blogs, and good ol’ word of mouth will spread awareness for now.

More information on dotSUB is here, including an interview with its founder of dotSUB.

There is also a useful comparison of the two tools at We Blog the World.

Note: This post was originally published on Scott Hale's blog on . It might have been updated since then in its original location. The post gives the views of the author(s), and not necessarily the position of the Oxford Internet Institute.