Crowdsourcing Professional Translation: Disrupting the Iron Triangle of Cost, Quality and Time

This week, Medium, a growing blogging platform, announced plans for internationalizing its user generated content (UGC) by tapping into the power of the crowd for professional translation. To do so, Medium reached out to thousands of its own users around the world, requesting their help in translating Medium content. The catch- Medium wants you to do so for free.

What should Medium expect in terms of the quality and timeliness of its professional translations, given that it aims to crowdsource its content for free?

Anyone who has been on the demand or supply side human-powered services has experienced what we call the Iron Triangle of Cost, Quality and Time.


To put it plainly, it has traditionally been impossible to deliver a service with higher quality, at lower cost and in lesser time.

Consider Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, which made waves in 2006 for its ability to deliver tasks faster and at lower cost than ever before. The solution- breaking large tasks into small micro-tasks called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) to be performed by hundreds of individuals around the world– offered businesses the promise of massively disrupting two of the three axes of the Iron Triangle.

Unfortunately, news soon started to surface about the astoundingly poor quality of work coming out of the platform. The article by MIT, titled How Mechanical Turk is Broken, stated that Mechanical Turk had quickly become the “digital equivalent of a sweatshop”, attracting low-quality workers that were producing completely unusable output.

Businesses leveraging the power of the crowd to enhance their capabilities must push for a basic understanding of how pliable they can realistically expect a service to be on cost, quality and turnaround time, beyond which they can expect a degradation in service. To do so, it is critical to develop an understanding of three important dynamics in any human-powered service:

Floor Price on High Quality: Crowdsourcing can help companies uncover price efficiencies by finding talent in geographies with lower cost of living. However, there are limits to such geographical arbitrage. Consider Spanish professional translation at VerbalizeIt- customers looking to translate their content into Spanish can get connected to translators in Latin America instead of their local markets. With the cost of living in LatAm being significantly lower than Europe and North America, customers enjoy the same quality of translation at a fraction of the cost. However, there are translation agencies that outsource Spanish translation to India and Philippines to cut costs. A non-native Spanish speaker cannot produce a native-sounding Spanish translation.

Knowing that a translation provider offering services for $0.05/ word or less is likely farming work out to non-native speakers, you now have your floor price on professional translation.

2. Quickest Turnaround Time for High Quality: If you are looking to source your original content from a crowdsourced platform, start with this simple question- “What is the minimum time I expect it would take to write a page of content thoughtfully and to have it proofread by someone I trust?”.  Then, expect a professional content generation platform to do it marginally faster than your expectations. Any faster, and quality is likely being traded in for speed.

At VerbalizeIt, we have analyzed millions of words of translation to determine that a professional translator can create at most 2,000 words of quality translated content in a full workday without compromising quality. That is roughly one page of content per hour, not including the time for professional review and final quality assurance.

If you find a translation platform offering to turn around “one hour” professional translations with expert review, they are either breaking your content into microtasks (a la Mechanical Turk), thereby degrading the context required to produce good work, and also probably cutting corners on review and quality assurance.

3. Floor Price for Rapid Turnaround: Uber has taken a lot of heat recently for implementing surge pricing- higher taxi rates during periods of limited supply of drivers (such as Friday nights and holidays). While it may not be acceptable to charged ten times the norm for urgent needs, it is important to appreciate the need to compensate your crowd for going above and beyond the norm. A service that doesn’t do so loses the engagement of its best community members who value their time and talent.

David Cohen, a prominent venture capitalist and CEO of Techstars, warns of the Risks of Crowdsourcing, urging businesses to be mindful of choosing a reputed crowdsourcing partner to mitigate the challenges associate with the Iron Triangle.

What has been your experience with crowdsourcing, as it relates to improving the efficiency of your business?