The fact that 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute is astonishing. And the immense amounts of footage shot and uploaded by citizens in places like Syria, Egypt and Chile reminds us that video is increasingly being used to expose human rights abuses. As more activists turn towards video for advocacy and evidentiary purposes, there is a critical need for accessible training resources that teach how to create and share videos safely, effectively and ethically. And so WITNESS has set out to enhance our Video for Change materials and share them with an even broader range of citizen documenters and activists. Of the many challenges this has presented, one in particular stands out: translation.

Volunteer Translators

The “Call for Translators” survey is how most of our volunteer translators connect with WITNESS.

Given a wide range of materials, limited staff capacity, and modest funding, we knew that our best option for translation would require a vast amount of volunteer power. What we did not realize was how powerful the volunteers would be. To date, over 380 people from all corners of the world have responded to our “Call for Translators”. As new volunteers are added to the steadily growing WITNESS Translator Database, they are notified when new tip sheets [Best Practices Tip Sheets-Arabic], videos [Intro to Video Advocacy Animations-Spanish], or blogs [Filming in Protests -Arabic] are ready for translation, and we often get immediate responses from dedicated volunteers.

With their help, we have completed nearly 50 translation projects and translated over 180,000 words into more than 11 languages (with a focus on Arabic, French and Spanish) in the last year alone.

We at WITNESS send a huge “THANK YOU!” to all of our talented translators!


Google Drive

We used Google Forms to create our “Call for Translators” survey, which asks volunteers to enter their language skills, video/tech skills, previous translation experience, and contact information (view form here). The form is regularly shared on social media, our website, and sites like Translations for Progress and Google Docs have also been useful for coordinating projects that require multiple translators or are in multiple languages.

Finally, we used Google Spreadsheets to develop and share a multi-lingual glossary of common WITNESS terms (view glossary here).

Subtitling Sites

Amara’s intuitive design makes translating and subtitling far easier.

We recently used Amara-Universal Subtitles to translate our new video on global forced evictions, People Before Profit, into 11 languages. Open source sites like Amara and Dotsub streamline the process of crowdsourcing. To get started, we copied the video’s YouTube link into Amara’s clean interface, transcribed the video into English and then invited volunteers to begin translating. As the subtitles were completed and proofread, we exported the tracks and embedded them in the video on YouTube. Read my colleague Martin Tzanev’s blog post for more details on embedding subtitles from Amara.

YouTube has also improved their tools for inputting subtitles and adding translations directly through their interface. They’ve also added auto-caption and auto-translate features, though these need improvement.

Projects & Partnerships

The Video for Change Toolkit has nearly 35,000 words, and a mix of videos, written guides, and web content. So translating it to Arabic, French, and Spanish was a massive project that merited outside help. We had the fortunate opportunity to work with Lingua, the volunteer-led Global Voices project that translates the site’s crowd-

The “Video for Change” Toolkit was the biggest translation project we’ve undertaken so far.

sourced content into 30 languages. Lingua’s expertise and expansive translator network was a great option for a speedy and professional translation. We’re looking forward to sharing the translated Toolkit with you in the near future. Learn more about Lingua and Global Voices here.

Other Tools

Our friends at Lingua suggested checking out these open source translation tools: Transifex; the FLOSS Manual’s section Open Translation Tools; and the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Open Translation Tools. Let us know in the comments section if you have any experience with these.


While this translation venture has been a positive learning experience, it has also presented some challenges. Here are a few key points to consider before starting a translation project:

  • Proofreaders: Have a second translator review the project for typos and mistranslations. Make sure both translators understand industry specific terms.
  • Dialects: Try to find translators from the area where the content will be used. If it will be used in various regions, ask the translators to use common language (e.g. Modern Standard Arabic, Simplified Chinese)
  • Non-Latin scripts: Using non-Latin scripts in programs like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro can be tricky because of issues with alignment and the appearance of the characters. Sometimes experimenting with different fonts solves the problem of characters not displaying correctly (ex. “Brush Script” works in Arabic, “Arial” doesn’t).
  • Give Thanks: Volunteer translators have highly specialized skills and give time generously. Try to be flexible with due dates and allow translators to choose projects that interest them. And make sure they know how much you appreciate their work!

Join Us

Explore our training materials in English and Arabic at (French and Spanish coming soon). Sign up for our Training Newsletter to receive updates on new materials and translations. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer translator, fill out this form or contact with questions.

What challenges have you encountered trying to get materials across linguistic barriers? What translation resources are you or your organization using? Please share your thoughts and ideas below.

10 thoughts on “An Open Source Approach to Translation

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  3. I am not a professional translator, but can do the task if needed, translating into Spanish, which is my mother tongue. I´ve made many translations so far from French, Italian and English with no complaints. So…. If I can help, I will be more than glad to.
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  4. Dear Friends,

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