Nov 5, 2014

Translators Without Borders: the ACCEPT project

In 2012, a grant of 1.8 million euros of EU funds was awarded to the ACCEPT project. The avowed aim of ACCEPT (Automated Community Content Editing PorTal) is to enablemachine translation for the emerging community content paradigm, allowing citizens across the EU better access to communities in both commercial and non-profit environments”.  A one-page description of the project is available here.

The diverse interests involved are intriguing, and potentially conflicting. The grant-seeking consortium is comprised of academia (the universities of Edinburgh and Geneva), digital media-focused companies (Acrolinx, Symantec and Lexcelera). Managed by Lexcelera, a non-profit translation entity (Translators without Borders, or ‘TwB’) participates in the project as well. The representatives of Acrolinx (Andrew Bredenkamp) and Lexcelera (Lori Thicke) also sit on TwB’s board of directors, while Symantec also has TwB linkage (one of TwB’s advisory board members, Uli Paulin, is a former Symantec employee).

As the sole non-profit member, Translators without Borders has a long history of providing pro bono linguistic aid to selected NGOs, including Doctors without Borders (as the choice of name would suggest). TwB’s projects in Africa have helped disseminate important healthcare information in previously unsupported (or outright ignored) languages. There is no argument that this is potentially life-saving work, and the core reason why the base of the TwB pyramid consists of thousands of freelance translators who enthusiastically contribute to its efforts on an entirely unpaid basis.

The apex of the TwB pyramid is rather less straightforward. Its board of directors and advisory board are primarily composed of major industry players who own or operate commercial concerns that have a strong and undisguised interest in exploiting machine translation and the ‘cognitive surplus’ (or unpaid crowdsourcing if you will).

This is where ACCEPT invites at least some query or scrutiny, because it entails using the non-profit TwB (advised by Lexcelera) to provide motivated volunteers to improve machine translation. The ACCEPT grant application emphasized an at least partially altruistic goal, supported by the presence of TwB and its volunteers. It bears repeating: ACCEPT’s stated purpose is to enablemachine translation for the emerging community content paradigm, allowing citizens across the EU better access to communities in both commercial and non-profit environments […]” (our emphasis). 

TwB operates on a demonetized basis (apart from a few specific projects in Africa). Using its unpaid participants in a project with an admitted commercial motive, funded by and for the EU, appears – at very least – curious. From a distance, one might ask whether TwB’s name and fame (derived from the idealistic and unremunerated contributions of donor translators focused on developing nations) has helped profit-making concerns – Acrolinx, Lexcelera, Symantec – obtain public monies for developing valuable digital media translation solutions. The ACCEPT project may yield results that justify its public funding, but they will be specifically for EU (First World) nations. TwB and other non-profits would doubtless receive some benefits, but the outcomes and assets would be ripe for use in prime commercial settings far removed from developing nations and the motivations of most volunteers.


The first part of this series, which raises questions of possible conflicts of interest, is here.

The second part, in which some TWB projects are discussed, is here.


  1. "...for the emerging community content paradigm."
    HAHAHAHAHA (typical EU blabla)

  2. Extract from the "Exploitation plan" (no pun intended) of the ACCEPT project ( ):

    Commercial Exploitation by Project Partners
    "Lexcelera is committed to scaling up the operations of Translation Without Borders from millions of words per year to tens or even hundreds of millions of words. This level of scalability, and the enormous benefits it brings in giving more people access to important information, can only be achieved by more automation and by addressing bottlenecks around editing which currently make the use of MT less than optimally productive. Lexcelera, as a Language Services Provider and expert in Machine Translation, will be able to improve its commercial offering through technologies and processes that result from this project."

    Were you aware of this, volunteer translators for TWB?

    1. No...
      I only translate for Médecins sans frontières, Saide and the CRIN.
      Saide is a campaign for the propagation of literacy in Africa, the Crin is an organisation for the development and protection of children rights and MSF is MSF.

      I select carefully the NGOs I help because they must reflect something I truly believe in.
      You will never catch me translating anything for Bankers without borders or Football something.
      What you are describing is alas true of too many charities. Many years ago, I worked as a volunteer in several organisations. While people were donating to the charity shops, the local volunteers were reselling the donations, and the regional and national managers were getting paid extremely fat salaries. I stopped working for those charities.
      Unfortunately, true charity doesn't exist anymore. Does this means we should all stop altogether from helping when we can? No, I still believe my small contributions will help the world a better place... however, what is sure is that TwB will not receive funds from the Out of Office newsletter.

  3. Interesting article Kevin!

    You have to ask yourself though, would a project like this (that does seem to be doing a lot of good) succeed if a few large companies DIDN'T stand to benefit somehow?

    It's sort of like the clever trick played by with their so-called ‘KudoZ’ questions: you get points for ‘altruistically’ helping your colleagues, and these points push you up the list clients/agencies use to find translators.

    That is, I think that building some kind of monetary benefit into a volunteer-based system isn't always such a bad idea.


  4. "I think that building some kind of monetary benefit into a volunteer-based system isn't always such a bad idea."

    If the monetary benefit is clearly disclosed to everybody, I could agree with you.

    But if this monetary benefit is kept secret from the people who do the actual work, a better term for this king of "monetary benefit" would be wage theft.

    1. Totally agree with you there Steve.

      With the Proz KudoZ system, it's all pretty transparent, but in the case being discussed here I'm not so sure. Large companies + the EU + Proz … hmm, all we need is for SDL and maybe TAUS to join ;-)

    2. Kudoz, much like Proz as a whole, is only good for attracting stupid clients who don't know how to filter and organize search results. Or who are too stupid/lazy to research and check translators they may want to work with.

      On the other hand, if anybody actively looks for a 'Kudoz star' they're most likely looking for somebody who is psychologically weak, to be able to exploit them with cheap work, late payments and service theft.

      Why would you want to stand out on that site? Considering facts that anybody who isn't an isolated and low-income making freelancer can see, I wouldn't even want to be seen there at all.

      As I've said before, I don't think anybody signs up for this out of any genuine reasons, but rather out of the assumption that it will help them market and sell their own so called services. Because if they did, they would react and not provide free the translation work it's obvious they're asked to. If they really wanted to give and help etc. that is...

      I would guess that the percentage of translators who have been genuinely mislead is small. The majority must suffer from an illness called 'any publicity/attention is good.' They think they will get something back, i.e. from seeming like 'established professionals' or 'quality translators' etc.

      Thank you very much for another great post, Kevin! I believe you're really making a difference for the better, more than anyone else right now.

  5. For those who haven't heard, there has now been a change of command at Translators Without Borders: More to come....

  6. Reading this somewhat belatedly. Thanks Kevin for bringing it to my attention.


Notice to spammers: your locations are being traced and fed to the recreational target list for my new line of chemical weapon drones :-)