What’s Marco Polo Project? Interview with the founder Julien Leyre

marco polo project

World is small. And the internet is even smaller.

In early February I joined the Hacking Chinese Characters Challenge.

One of the rules decided by the guy that proposed the challenge, Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese (check it, it’s one of the best resources out there to learn Chinese), was that we had to connect via email with the two people that joined the challenge before and after us.

This is how I got in touch with Julien Leyre who, after we introduced ourselves and our goals with Chinese language, followed up with this email:

“Hey Furio,

Julien here, French guy living in Australia – possiamo anche parlare Italiano si preferisci. I run a digital organization called Marco Polo Project – we crowd-source the translation of new Chinese writing, and bring together language learners online and through workshops to help each other learn.”

Now, that sounds interesting to me. And this is how this interview was born : )

The Marco Polo Project

Julien, what’s the Marco Polo Project?

The Marco Polo Project is a digital organisation promoting Chinese and China literacy through peer-to-peer and crowd-sourcing models.

In more everyday terms, our website offers a selection of new writing from China – short fiction, opinion pieces and social commentary by intellectuals and popular bloggers – and we invite language students and enthusiasts to collaborate on their translation. We also run collaborative translation workshops with native Mandarin speakers and Mandarin learners.

Through Marco Polo Project, Chinese learners can practice their language skills, read new Chinese writing and join a community that actively promotes cross-cultural dialogue; and non-Mandarin readers can discover the voices of Chinese writers.

So we’re both a specialized online magazine, and a language-learning community.

How does it work? Who can participate?

Our editorial team browses through the main Chinese blog aggregators and online magazine, and selects pieces for the website. Our users use a simple interface to type in their translation, or revise an existing translation. And a color code indicates how advanced each translation is.

Anyone can register, anyone can translate – it’s all free. All translations are peer-produced and peer-assessed. And results are surprisingly good. We’re doing a few tweaks now, improving the website and gamifying the system so there’s more incentives to translate, but that’s our basic model.

What do you mean for “gamifying” in this context?

Basically we’re trying to give users a sense of progress. There’s various elements to it:

  • Validate translation paragraph by paragraph – so after users spend, say, 45 minutes on the site, they have completed 2 paragraphs, rather than 1/12th of a text.
  • A progress bar, indicating how much of a text remains to be translated.
  • A better profile page, listing all the interactions of the users, texts they translated, and how much remains to translate.
  • Finally, points and badges for each interaction.

julien leyre

Your project looks very ambitious and, I believe, will express its real potential only in a couple of years. What is the main motivation that pushed you to start something like that?

Well, I thought something like this should exist. When I started working on Marco Polo Project, in 2011, I’d been studying Chinese for four years or so. I was desperate to start reading the real stuff, but I had no idea where to find it.

I also knew, because I worked as a language teacher for years, that students do translation as part of their course, and all of them go to the bin. I thought we could bring the two together – recycle the work done by students as part of their learning, and bring Chinese voices to Western readers. So I pulled a group of people together, and we built this.

Which are the biggest challenges on developing such a project?

With a project like this, the work hits you from all directions – admin build up, and editorial selection, engagement and marketing, and web-design and development. But the biggest challenge so far is around money – rather, making do without it.

It’s a problem that most not-for-profit organisations have to face: they have a very limited amount of money, so how will they be able to do good work and attract good staff, or keep their good staff, with so little money?

On the other hand, it’s also what most of ‘contents’ industry now struggles with: people want access to good stuff online, but they (mostly) want access for free.

So where’s the money coming from? Freemium? Ads? Government subsidy? Philanthropy? ‘Honesty’ pay-per-view system? Donations? Or indirectly, through public speaking and consulting gigs? It’s not very clear yet, and the answer is probably some combination of all the above.

Also, because our model is new, it’s really hard to get kick-start ‘institutional’ support, government or university. We fall in-between silos. We’re global in scope, and so we don’t qualify for many government grants or even deductible gift recipient status in Australia – which in turn reduces our chances of getting philanthropic funding.

We fall in-between ‘arts’ and ‘education’ grants or scholarships, so typically qualify for neither. And we’re an innovative digital start-up, but not-for-profit, no-good for business R&D grants. So bureaucratic silos are clearly the biggest enemy.

People love our project, institutions can’t place it.

You define yourself as a “community builder.” And looking at the number and the quality of your partners (Danwei, École Normale Supérieure de Paris and so on) it seems that you are quite good at it. What are, in your opinion, the characteristics of a successful leader on the web 2.0 era?

I guess the core characteristics of leadership haven’t really changed: it’s always about patience, courage, and authenticity. But there might be one thing which has become really more central: the capacity to build, inspire and manage a community with blurry boundaries. In a non-web 2.0 context, I believe there’s a relatively clear distinction between your team, your users or clients, and your partners. Not so with us.

I’m the main staff member of Marco Polo Project, I’m also the number one user; some people on our board run partner organisations, while partners often double as advisors; and all our translators are both ‘clients’ of our ‘education platform’ and ‘volunteers’ for our ‘online magazine’. This is the reality we’re dealing with, and we’re embracing it: success for us is about developing a sense of collective ownership.

I think it also reflects in the way we develop partnerships. We publish a regular column on Danwei, based on our translations, and they link back to our website, giving us traffic, new translators and legitimacy.

École Normale Supérieure de Paris, now also La Trobe University, encourages their students to use our website; we provide a free learning platform they can use in their classes. We regularly talk to various other online and offline institutions, and the goal every time is to build similar partnerships, based on the principle of symbiotic collaboration.

So to come back to your question, I think as a Web 2.0 leader, you must be comfortable thinking along those lines: see where your proposal fits in, take time to discuss collaborations, and inspire trust.

So practically speaking, don’t be shy of approaching people, put your cards on the table, and if it fails, try again.

Beside the internet, you also run Chinese translation workshops in Melbourne, the town where you live. What’s the goal?

I think it’s important for a digital community to develop an offline presence, and give participants a chance to meet face to face. We tend to think of the web and the ‘real world’ as completely different spaces – but the same people actually live in both. You and I met through the web, and I’ve met many friends online, in some way or other.

Workshops are an opportunity to build that connection locally. It’s also a model that can be reproduced anywhere in the world, especially by language schools and universities. So to an extent, it’s a strategic development: it’s a kind of ‘free service model’ we can pitch, that will bring on more users and translators to our platform, and grow our community.

marco polo projectA Marco Polo Project’s workshop in Melbourne

I see, this is how also TEDx conferences could grew so fast. On your blog, you admit the necessity to add new features to reach a “critical mass” of visitors. What’s your plan?

The web is an incredibly competitive space. Why would anyone visit our website rather than, say, Facebook or Wikipedia? We put a lot of efforts in selecting good contents, and that’s clearly playing in our favour.

But I think internet users have become used to getting super-usable interfaces for free, and have little patience with minor design flaws. When you don’t have money to pay for a proper web-designer and developing team, you get serious headaches over that.

As far as new features go, there’s three main things we’re planning to do. The first is to gamify the translation experience, so translators can measure their progress better. We raised money recently through Pozible.com, and a few plug-ins are in the pipeline. The second is to develop a better ‘reading’ interface – tablet compatible, with better targeted RSS subscription. The third is to bring in more languages – we’ve had people contact us to translate into German, Portuguese, and Polish. But before we do that, we’ll have to re-think our design a bit.

The plan is to find some kick-start money to pay for solid web-development – or a committed web-developer to do pro-bono work for us. Meanwhile, our beta version is functional, and enough to start growing the community.

About the internet, foreign languages and social interactions

I’m Italian, I lived five years in France and I spent a huge amount of time with hispanohablantes (from both Spain and Latino America).

If there is something that I blame to us Latin guys, is our “resistance” against foreign languages. We translate ALL movies, books and TV series. We clone neologisms so that we don’t have to use English words. We just don’t give a shit. In your opinion, what are the causes behind this behavior?

I like you talking about us ‘Latin guys’ – Marco Polo Project is named after one like that. I think we’re in a good position to understand China. The country’s had revolution after revolution – like France – and my Chinese friends spend all day talking to their mother on the phone – like my Italian friends. Joke aside, I think China’s definitely closer to Latin or Mediterranean cultures than to the ‘anglo-american’ world.

I wouldn’t say that we don’t give a shit – you and I are conversing in English in this interview, and we both also studied Chinese. But yes, we’re not all desperate to anglicize, and why should we?

OK, I’ve got this theory, which may be wrong, or have some part of right. My grand-parents live in the South of France, in a Medieval town, with a 12th century wall around it.

My father studied in Nimes, and hung out as a teenager around 2nd and 3rd century Roman monuments. My aunt was born in Marseille, which had a rich and complex urban civilization in the 5th century BC.

Latin countries have long histories, and that brings a real sense of cultural strength. There’s also lots of exchanges between Latin countries: my grand-mother doesn’t speak English, but during World War II, she got the news from Radio Rome – and because she speaks Provencal, she could understand Italian pretty well.

I think ‘Latin’ cultures offer an alternative to the ‘anglo’ model, with a different set of assumptions and values. I think it’s a model ‘the West’ should explore, especially when it comes to better understanding Asia.

I agree. Countries with a long history tend to preserve and value their language much more than “young” countries. Let’s say it: “Latin guys are f*cking snob haha.” And I also agree that we are in a good position to understand North East Asia. As an example, China, Japan and Korea react in a similar fashion to foreign languages. In China they even translate brand names. Thus Starbucks became 星巴克, Xingbake, and KFC became 肯德基, Kendeqi.

translate chinese

A Chinese Starbucks

Anyway, while I was browsing your blog to prepare this interview I stumbled upon a very interesting article, Second-tier languages on the web, where you pointed out that English language accounts for about 50% of all contents on the Internet while in the real world there are much less native English speakers.

The corollary is that “second-tier” languages – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, etc – are often under-represented on the web. I know that it’s difficult to forecast it, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Are things going to change any soon? If yes, in which direction?

Multilingualism on the web is a question that fascinates me. From what I’ve read, no-one really knows what the future will be like. But one trend at least is very clear: the share of English on the web is decreasing. English represented 75% of all internet contents 10 years ago. Now it’s only 50% – and in all likelihood, that percentage will decrease. So, if I was to predict anything, I would say that the web is going to become a more multilingual space.

Learning Chinese

A last question. You speak several languages and are obviously an expert on the topic. How it’s going your Chinese study?

It’s hard!!!! I’ve been at it since 2007, but I still have a long road ahead of me. Marco Polo Project really helped with my reading – learning new words and ‘integrating’ common ones. But listening and speaking are lagging behind a bit. I followed advice from Olle Linge, and I’ve got an MP3 reader full of Chinese podcasts which I listen to when I walk around: that really helps. Hopefully, I’ll get some sort of grant or scholarship to spend some time in China this year, and cement the things I’ve been learning. I guess learning Chinese is a really good character-building exercise: it does take a lot of patience!

Julien, thanks a lot for taking the time to answer to my questions : )

p.s. Last week I asked to the developers of Skritter – the software that I’m using to learn how to write Chinese characters – whether they could offer a discount for the readers of this website. And they did. So if you are interested you can just jump to Skritter’s homepage from this link and use the coupon “SDC3952”. Yup, in the case you sign up I do get some money for referring you. It’s win-win ; )

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