NewsHour crowdsources translations of President Obama's 'State of the Union'

NewsHour has big plans to transform the way it presents election coverage -- and ultimately other news -- to non-native English speakers and the hearing impaired.

As part of its State of the Union Address coverage Tuesday night, NewsHour asked its viewers and social media followers to help translate the president’s speech using a free tool called Universal Subtitles, which lets people translate any videos on the Web.

The goal of the crowdsourced translations is to make news videos more accessible -- and to give people ways to interact with videos in ways that they traditionally couldn’t.

“This is the beginning phase of turning video into something people never expected,” said Hari Sreenivasan, PBS NewsHour correspondent and director of digital partnerships. “It gives viewers an opportunity to be part of spreading content to more people, and gives public media organizations a way to engage with their communities in a deep and ongoing way.”

By 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, portions of the "State of the Union" had been translated into Arabic, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, German, Esperanto, Spanish, French, Korean and Portuguese.

Tuesday night’s effort marked the start of “NewsHour Open Election Community 2012,” a project in partnership with Mozilla and the Participatory Culture Foundation. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has provided NewsHour with a $420,000 grant for the project, and Mozilla and PCF are matching that with a $260,000 investment.

“The goal is to empower citizen engagement in election coverage, using a mix of open-source technology and community participation," Matt Thompson, Mozilla’s chief storyteller and communications director, said by phone. “Captioning and subtitling key speeches with Universal Subtitles is an important part of that. We forget sometimes that the language barrier is still a huge obstacle to sharing news and knowledge. This project is all about knocking down those barriers.”

How the crowdsourced translations work

NewsHour plans to ask its audience to translate videos throughout the election season and wants to ultimately expand this effort beyond elections coverage, Sreenivasan said by phone. The program first tested out the technology during last year’s State of the Union Address and ended up getting eight full translations within 24 hours and partial translations in several other languages. The experiment was so successful that NewsHour decided to seek funding to do it again.

Users can add new translations, improve translations others have made and get the embed code for the video they're translating.

The process for translating videos is easy. When users arrive at a video on NewsHour’s site, they’ll see a drop-down menu that they can click on to add a new translation, improve an already existing translation, or watch the video in a different language with subtitles. In many ways, it’s like Wikipedia for video translations. If users decide to improve or add a translation, they’ll be taken to, a free and open-source site that the Participatory Culture Foundation runs.

From there, they can pick which language they want to translate the video into and type their translations line by line. If the language they want to translate into isn’t one of the 205 languages listed, they can ask to add a new language. They can also choose to either translate a video in its entirety or just a portion of it.

NewsHour isn’t the first organization to rely on the community for translations. Twitter and Facebook have asked the crowd to help translate information on their sites, and various translation service companies are trying to offer technology to make it easier. The New York City-based startup Smartling, for instance, recently got $10 million to expand its crowdsourced translations.

Because NewsHour doesn’t have translators on staff who can check the accuracy of all the translations, they plan to rely on help from volunteers., which supports YouTube, Vimeo and HTML5 videos, has about 5,000 volunteers who read through the translations on the site and make improvements when necessary. Volunteers aren’t vetted, but there’s a built-in system that helps people keep track of how translations have changed. Whenever a volunteer modifies a translation, the original translator is notified via email.

“We have every intention to be as editorially accurate as possible. I don’t fundamentally believe that there are people out there who want to malign us by offering incorrect translations, but who knows?” Sreenivasan said. “I think our intentions are noble, and I think the people who end up as volunteers for these kinds of things are generally more philanthropic and more volunteer-driven than the average viewer.”

Nicholas Reville, cofounder and executive director of PCF, said volunteers who translate NewsHour videos will be notified via email whenever a new NewsHour video has been posted. The hope is that this will help build a community of translators around NewsHour’s content.

Sreenivasan said NewsHour is using some of its grant money to hire a new staffer who will be responsible for building the community of translators. This person will help select videos for translation and will reach out to individuals and organizations that care about language issues in hopes that they’ll help translate the videos and/or build interest in the effort.

Featuring news videos that pull in context from the social Web

As part of the partnership, NewsHour will also start experimenting with Mozilla Popcorn, a new open-source technology that’s aimed at making video “work like the Web."

The technology, which is like a Storify for videos, lets you add social media elements, Google maps and other context directly to the video timeline. In a video of the State of the Union Address, for instance, you could pull in excerpts from a PolitiFact story about the president’s speech, or tweets that show how people reacted to certain parts of it. (Here's an example of a video that used the technology.)

“Remember the VH1 pop-up videos? Mozilla Popcorn is basically pop-up videos on steroids,” said Mozilla’s Thompson. “Until now, video on the Web has been mostly stuck inside a closed, black box. We think Mozilla Popcorn will help create a new form of Web-native video, or 'hyper-video,' that allows video to work more like the rest of the Web, pulling in context and weaving other forms of content directly into the story."

The technology is targeted at developers and requires coding skills to use, but Mozilla has launched an alpha version of a more consumer-friendly product called Popcorn Maker.

Ideally, Sreenivasan said, Mozilla Popcorn will enable NewsHour to create a more engaging experience for viewers who want to see how content can be tied together to make videos more informative and multi-dimensional.

Thompson said he hopes the partnership with NewsHour will prompt other organizations to find ways to enhance how the public experiences news videos.

“Until now, video has been primarily a passive kind of experience; you sit and you watch,” Thompson said. “What we're starting to see now is the emergence of a new era for Web video that is much more participatory and interactive. We think the opportunities for journalism are enormous."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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