Language Matters July 2011: How Facebook Got [Almost] Universal Through Translation

Dear Language Friend,

You have probably already noticed the vast number of languages that are available on the widely popular social networking website, Facebook. You also may have already seen the window below and marveled at the diversity of available languages:

Yes, Facebook already has 69 languages available in its database, in addition to regional dialects and geographic varieties, such as English (US), English (UK), or English (India), Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Mexico), or Spanish (Venezuela).

Surprisingly, in spite of all the new features and constant improvements, Facebook is still free and easy to access. You may ask yourself: how come? How can Facebook afford to pay more than 70 translators for the 24,000 phrases currently present on the website? Well, it doesn’t have to. Here is the full story, courtesy of the LingoStar team!

Contributed by Coralie Tripier and Cecilia Rose


After having quickly conquered Harvard, the Ivy League, and later a large part of North America, former student and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had one thing in mind: making Facebook known and used worldwide. Clearly, the young CEO needed to translate the entire website into other languages, but that is not all: more than anything else, he needed to localize it – adapt it to different cultures.  Sometime around the year 2007, Zuckerberg had a revolutionary idea: a translation by the Facebook user for the Facebook user!

Since then, the Facebook Translation App – an application allowing users to translate and choose the best translations for the website – was launched. First, it helped translate the platform into Spanish, German, and French, before expanding to other languages. The application quickly got popular among volunteer translators – a group of professional linguists, wannabe translators, or language enthusiasts – making it easy for everyone to contribute, if even only a word or two.

There are two different features available in the Translation App. The LingoStar team tried to navigate through the French Facebook Translation App in order to get complete insight of its functionality:

– The Facebook user can click on a phrase and suggest his/her own translation:

– The Facebook user can decide to vote up (yes) or down (no) for the existing translations. This is how the whole system works: the translation with the most ‘up’ or ‘yes’ votes will automatically be posted on the website.


This system emphasizes the fluency and localization of the translations, and fights against literal ones. For example, the simple button “Like” is translated as “This is what I like” in Czech, “It is pleasing me” in Russian, “I like” in French, “I find it fun” in Dutch, “like this” in Norwegian, “I admire” in Arabic, “I like it!” in Polish (notice the added exclamation point!), “like well” in Danish, “arrr!” in pirate English, and many others!

Overall, the system has been a success and helped translate Facebook into many languages while respecting the users’ preferences. However, such a system has its flaws: In 2008, a group of pranksters understood that if they got enough votes, their translations would automatically be accepted. It worked, and for a few hours, the Turkish version of Facebook displayed rude messages that had nothing to do with the original text. The Facebook staff quickly noticed and solved the problem.

Now, if you want to contribute to your particular social networking language, feel free to use the Translation App – it can be a lot of fun and you could be featured on the “leaderboard” if your translations get popular! You can even contribute to dialects such as English (pirate), in which you will be notified that, for example, “Peter an’ 11 more o’ yer hearties be admirin’ yer recent tales”, or learn that your offline friends have “gone ashore”:

The LingoStar team is convinced: the Facebook Translation App is a great idea. However, in order to get a complete and accurate translation of the whole website in many languages, Facebook might need the services of language professionals like LingoStar: indeed, most of the translations present on the website are not complete, except for the most popular languages. For example, the Welsh translation is only 85 % complete, the Filipino one 80 %, the Croatian 86 %, the Lithuanian 79 %, the Romanian 74 %, the Slovene 82 %, the Vietnamese 87 %, etc.

In conclusion, the Facebook Translation App is a great feature that produces translations by Facebook users for Facebook users! But Facebook is not the first one to have used this process:  crowdsourcing – the outsourcing of tasks that will voluntarily be performed by a community – has recently gained a lot of popularity and  companies such as Skype, Twitter or Doodle have used it to translate their material. It is still very recent, but it seems that crowdsourcing will gain more and more importance in the field of translation.