Zhao Jiamin, 38, knows the importance of bringing information to the masses, and in a digital world filled with online content that is mostly in English, he has found a niche in providing Chinese translations of articles that appear in foreign publications. Born in Anshun, Guizhou province, Zhao founded Dongxi and co-founded Yeeyan, two popular community-translation websites. He talks about how they serve as tools for mainlanders to access a wide range of content from the foreign language press.
How did you become an entrepreneur of community-translation websites?
I received my bachelor's degree at Tsinghua University, and a few years later I completed my postgraduate and PhD studies at the University of Southern California. While I was working as an application engineer with [software and hardware systems company] Oracle in the United States, two friends and I set up a translation blog, in July 2006, posting Chinese articles about entrepreneurship, science and technology translated from English, because there was demand among Chinese readers. Back then, I had never expected it to be a business and to develop like it has today. After a few months, we noticed a growing interest among readers. We created a Web 2.0 site and decided to call it 'Yeeyan' [meaning 'translate the language'] in December 2006. More people joined as translators, and the articles became more comprehensive when the topics expanded to business, society, culture and other areas.
I came back to Beijing in May 2007 and started working with Yeeyan full time as general manager in March 2008. I founded Dongxi in December 2009 after leaving Yeeyan, and we took over Yeeyan this July.
How does the collaborative translation work?
Users recommend, translate and publish articles selected from foreign publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian and the Economist. Other users can discuss, comment, evaluate translations and look for mistakes, akin to quality control. The system and editors archive translators' performances.
Popular translated articles get recommended by editors. About 100 to 150 newly translated articles appear on Yeeyan each day.
Yeeyan is more of a community-based translation site, and Dongxi [meaning 'West and East'] is more reliant on an editorial team to take the lead in producing articles and special reports. They supplement each other. In terms of internet traffic, Yeeyan ranks about No 6,000 globally, and Dongxi is about No 13,000, according to [internet-monitoring-site] Alexa.
What kind of people read these sites?
There are about 300,000 registered users of both sites, and the core users are reporters, editors and publishing house employees. Alexa did an analysis of our readers, and compared with the average statistics of other websites, we have relatively more male readers and more bachelor's degree holders, and they have a higher family income, of between US$30,000 and US$100,000 annually.
Mainlanders have a higher level of demand for outside information than Westerners do.
How do you handle censorship?
The community has naturally formed a self-censorship characteristic. When the users recommend articles to translate, they usually won't select extremely sensitive ones.
Honestly speaking, there have been very few cases of articles being censored by the site itself. As we don't have the official qualifications to run a news website, we try to focus on commentaries and opinions, and avoid news articles.
What do translators get?
We have more than 5,000 translators. That's a conservative estimate.
About one-tenth are active translators, meaning they submit articles every week. About one-third are university students and one-third white-collar employees.
Yeeyan's new translators receive non-material returns, including a sense of success in sharing and leading opinions. They can improve their translation skills with the help of editors and other translators.
Later on, they have a chance to get paid if their translated articles attract many hits. Those with a good track record of performance will be invited to join commercial projects and get paid. Some can make more than 10,000 yuan (HK$12,190) a month, which is not bad. But most translators' passion for it dies down after six months. About one out of 100 will persist. Financial returns are actually a motivation for translators to stay in the community.
What roles do Yeeyan and Dongxi play?
Our websites are basically like a bridge or window through which some readers have access to a broader world so that they can think and act in a more rational way.
We provide a platform containing the other side of a story.
There is a big gap between Chinese and English information online, as about 90 per cent of content is in English. There is very little high-quality information in Chinese. So there is an enormous demand from relatively high-end readers in first- and second-tier cities for information.
So Yeeyan's slogan is: 'Discover, translate and read the internet beyond your language.'
Is there strong competition?
We are still in the early stages of building a contributor community, which is a tough job. We target a niche market. We are focused and down-to-earth. We aren't rushed because competition is not that fierce.
Our understanding and practice of 'crowd-sourcing' [groups of volunteers translating texts] has deepened since 2006 when the term was created. We are on the cutting edge in terms of quality control and community-framework design.
What have been some milestones during the development of the two sites?
Yeeyan worked with The Guardian in 2009, translating timely articles and of a high quality. Dongxi works with the Chinese version of Forbes magazine. We also managed to translate Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, written by Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine, and published it in December. The digital version was just released, in July, for the iPhone and iPad.
We are still fighting for survival, but we can still get by. We have secured book-translation deals, including for the autobiographies of Nelson Mandela and George W. Bush and a biography of Steve Jobs.
What's in store for the future of community translation?
I think it will become increasingly useful. Websites similar to Yeeyan and Dongxi include science-knowledge-website Guokr.com and 36kr.com, which focus on internet entrepreneurship. These websites collaborate with each other [in organising events and sharing content], which is a trend.
What are your future plans?
Yeeyan will focus more on community building and crowd-sourcing translations, and Dongxi will move to providing digital reading.
There also might be more opportunities to co-operate with foreign media. Though we have been in contact with foreign media that approve of what we have been doing, we still need to sort out copyright issues.