Parlez-vous Facebook?

Harnessing the power of its own social network, Facebook translates itself into 70 languages

Photo: Julia Nichols/iStockphoto

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

In January 2008, Facebook launched its first non-English version, Spanish. But it also opened the door to dozens more by unveiling a crowdsourcing translation application that enables its users to translate Facebook into their own languages. The app, at Facebook.com/translations, enables users to translate snippets of Facebook text, such as "view their photos" or "profile information last updated 1 hour ago." Other translators then vote the snippets up or down. When enough of the interface has been translated, and after a review by outside consultants, it goes live on Facebook.

Developing the next languages showed how much power Facebook has when it taps into its own network of users, says John Yunker, co-owner of the Web globalization consulting firm Byte Level Research, in Ashland, Ore. "It took just a day to get Facebook translated into French," Yunker says. "That’s how quickly they got the audience to participate."

Facebook gives its users free rein to entertain themselves with the translation app. There are currently three joke-English interfaces in the Account Settings > Language menu: Upside-down English, "English (Pirate)," and "Leet Speak." Leet is a decades-old online game that abbreviates words with numbers and letters: "Elite" becomes "Leet," also written as "1337." A typical menu in Pirate might read "Adjust ye riggin’s" for Settings or "Yarr Vessel" for Account.

The ultimate crowdsourced site, Wikipedia, with its 276 languages, still leaves Facebook in the dust. But Facebook’s more than 100 language versions put it well above the average of 22 languages for global companies’ websites, Yunker says.

All those additional languages are driving much of Facebook’s astonishing growth—notably in Brazil, one of the last remaining strongholds of rival Google-owned social network Orkut. Facebook claims its 252 volunteer Brazilian Portuguese translators have submitted more than 150 000 translations of snippets from Facebook’s interface. Just 1350 untranslated phrases remained as of early May.

On the other hand, parts of Facebook’s interface don’t stand up when translated into other cultures. "Users in Japan like anonymity more," Yunker says. "They tend to be more active on social networks if they can remain anonymous and use avatars." But this is just not an option in Facebook. No surprise, then, that the world’s leading social network remains much less popular than native Japanese social net Mixi.

The power of language cannot be denied, however, and it now extends beyond the Facebook user interface. Companies with third-party Facebook apps can opt into Facebook’s crowdsourcing translation process, which more than 300 000 Facebook users contribute to in one way or another, according to the company’s published statistics.

Even advertising is getting into the multilanguage game, says digital communications specialist Marc Frechette, of marketing firm SilverTech, in Manchester, N.H. Users who read Facebook in English might still find non-English messages popping up. If your Facebook profile says you speak German, for example, a German-language ad on an English-language page stands out.

"Social media is all about connections," Frechette says. "There’s no stronger connection than literally speaking the same language."

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

About the Author

Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass. He also wrote "Six Billion Friends" for our special report on the social Web (June 2011).

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