I work on Open Phil’s longtermist Effective Altruism Community Growth team. Our broad goal is to grow and support the pool of people who are well-positioned to work on longtermist priority projects. One thing we’re interested in is making it the case that more people are exposed to high-quality content — books, blog posts, papers, podcasts, videos, articles, etc. — on relevant topics, like effective altruism, longtermism, existential risk, rationality, etc. (This includes object-level content on cause areas like AI alignment and governance, biosecurity, global priorities, animal welfare, global health, etc.)
But there’s a lot of high-quality content of this sort that’s currently only available in English or a few other world languages. This significantly limits how many people the content can reach. For this reason, Open Phil is interested in funding work that leads to EA/EA-adjacent content getting translated from English into other languages.
We’re looking for people who are able to work full- or at least half-time (at least 20 hours a week), either a) translating content themselves, or b) hiring non-EA professional translators and reviewing their work for quality.
Apply here if you’re interested in paid opportunities, part- or full-time, to help get content translated.
[Edit Mar 22, 2023: Changed the required commitment from 5 hours to at least 20 hours per week, to reflect the types of projects we're most excited about at present.]
Why is Open Phil excited about translation work?
Translation work looks to me like an unusually concrete task aimed directly at a serious bottleneck in community-building. It can also be done remotely and on one’s own schedule, unlike other types of community-building work (e.g. running meetup groups).
One simple way of thinking about the impact of translation work is by thinking about yourself as a miniature copy of the author. For example, the post On Caring took a certain number of hours for its author (Nate Soares) to write and has accrued a certain number of readers over time, which led to a certain amount of impact (which I think was positive). Currently, I’m not aware of any translation of this post into French. If you were to cause it to be translated into French, it would start accruing readers (probably fewer than it did in English), and after a while it’d have had some amount of impact, which would be some fraction of the impact Nate had in the original writing. In this scenario, you effectively spent some of your time acting as a mini-Nate.
The “miniature version of the author” framing might make translation work sound like an unbelievably good use of time. Some important things this framing doesn’t highlight:
- The resulting translated work still needs to somehow get distributed to readers (which won’t happen automatically).
- The impact of a translation may be higher or lower than its raw number of readers would suggest.
- On the “lower” side: it is unfortunately, currently more difficult for people who don’t speak English to get involved in the EA community, for a variety of reasons (location of jobs, location of events, etc.). So readers of translated work may struggle to turn their interest into impact.
- On the “higher” side: There’s a lot less EA-related content in non-English languages. This means that someone who reads your translated work might have been less likely to encounter similar ideas elsewhere, which gives you more counterfactual “credit” for whatever impact they go on to have.
But overall, I like how this framing highlights some core parts of why translation work is highly valuable per unit time, according to me:
- Translation is easier than original creation, so you can piggyback off the best authors’ work without yourself needing to be among EA’s best writers.
- You have the benefit of hindsight, so you can choose to “write” (i.e. translate) just the 1 out of 10 or the 1 out of 100 pieces that turned out the best.
(I think it’s tough to make general comparisons between translation work and other community-building activities in non-English-speaking countries, such as running groups or events. Which is more impactful depends on personal fit and other details.)
Who should apply?
You should apply if:
- You enjoy EA/EA-adjacent content and want to help share it with others.
- You’re fluent in a non-English language.
- You’re willing to do (paid) half-time or more (at least 20 hours a week) on translation over at least the next six months.
- This could include doing the translation yourself, or supervising professional translators paid for by Open Phil (see below for an explanation of what this might look like). If you think you might be willing to do the latter option, I’d recommend it, as I currently think it’s a more leveraged use of time.
(Application form here.)
[Edit Mar 22, 2023: Changed the required commitment from 5 hours to at least 20 hours per week, to reflect the types of projects we're most excited about at present.]
What content is Open Phil interested in having translated?
In this call for applications, I focus on translating web content — that is, anything available for free on the internet. This includes blog posts, EA Forum and LessWrong posts, podcast episodes, articles, and videos (as long as questions of copyright can be addressed satisfactorily). I’m not focused on books in this post because translating them involves working with the publisher and can’t be done independently, so the work seems less tractable for most people, though also potentially very valuable.
Which pieces of web content are the highest-priority to get translated? Sometimes we can go by ‘track record’ — certain pieces of content have historically gotten a lot of attention and are credited by many respondents to our survey as having been impactful on them or having introduced them to EA/EA-adjacent ideas. I also have anecdotal data attesting to the impact of other pieces.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of content I think it’s a priority to get translated, grouped by type but otherwise in no particular order. This is just intended as an example; an item’s exclusion from this list doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be translated.
- The Effective Altruism Handbook and some or all of the content it links out to
- The AGI Safety Fundamentals curriculum and some or all of the content it links out to
- The AI Governance Curriculum and some or all of the content it links out to
- Some or all of 80000hours.org
- The Most Important Century blog post series
- Some or all of Rationality A-Z (“The Sequences”)
- Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence and Morality
- Nick Bostrom’s Astronomical Waste
- TED talks by Peter Singer and Will MacAskill
- Videos by Robert Miles about AI safety on YouTube
- Ajeya Cotra’s Introduction to EA talk on YouTube
- The 80,000 Hours podcast
If you apply and we proceed with your application, we’ll likely suggest specific pieces of content we’re interested in getting translated, and make you an offer to work on those.
How does supervising professional translators work? What skills do I need to do it?
The basic plan is that you’d find several professional translators and trial them on a few translation tasks, then select the ones who did a good job and give them more work. In addition to (or rather than) doing translation yourself, you’d be managing one or more translators who aren’t necessarily EAs, and who would be paid for by Open Phil.
It would be your responsibility to find professional translators and reach out to them. Open Phil might be able to recommend possible translators for some languages, but we don’t have special knowledge in the area. We’re happy to give more advice on this process if we move forward with your application.
Conceptually (if everything works out), this is a way to multiply your impact, since one person can review the work of several professionals. I think translations have a lot of community-building value, so in most situations, this seems like a good deal to me (i.e. well worth the monetary expenditure on Open Phil’s part).
Note this is an experiment, and I can imagine it being less efficient than it seems for several reasons — but I think it’s definitely worth trying.
The most important skill in supervising professional translators is being able to recognize high-quality translations. Aside from that, I expect it to involve a small-to-medium amount of logistical work.
How do EAs compare to professional translators on the quality of the products they produce?
In a pilot project at Open Phil, our intern Guille Costa supervised a small number of both non-EA professionals and bilingual EAs in translating content into Portuguese. The finding was that the EAs didn’t have a notable advantage or disadvantage; the quality of the best products produced by EAs and the best products produced by professionals seemed to be about the same, on average, as assessed (blinded) by Guille. This was a small sample assessed by one person, so it doesn’t constitute much evidence.
How will we evaluate applications?
We’ll get back to you within one month of receiving your application. If we move forward with your application, we might reach out to you to schedule a call and/or to ask you to complete a (paid) work test assessing your translation abilities.
This is an experimental program; we might have to reject applications from people who would do a good job if given guidance or support, simply because we don’t have the time to give that support. Translation into some languages carries more downside risk than translation into others, and this might be a significant input into our evaluation.
What languages are we interested in translations for?
We’re open to funding translation projects in most languages with over five million speakers. The expected impact of a translation varies by language, of course, but we think this is unlikely to be the deciding factor in most applications.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of languages we’re excited to see (more) translations into:
[Edit Mar 21, 2023] Out of this list, we are particularly excited about Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese translations right now, because we've gotten comparatively few applications to do translation work in these languages.
Can translations carry downside risk?
The 2018 post by Ben Todd, “Why Not To Rush To Translate Effective Altruism Into Other Languages” cautions that “most efforts to do translation work should be delayed,” and that instead “efforts to expand EA into other languages should focus on person-to-person outreach to a small number of people with key expertise.”
I agree with the post that, due to political considerations, we should be cautious about doing outreach in (and therefore translation into) some languages. We’ll take this into account when handling applications, and if you have expertise in one of these languages we encourage you to apply regardless.
But I disagree with the post’s implication that EAs should continue to wait to do translations into other languages associated with less dicey political situations, e.g. French, Spanish, or Japanese. I think most languages are substantially less risky.
I share the post’s view that we should make sure translations are high-quality and that translations are best accompanied by “on-the-ground” outreach work — I just don’t think these are reason enough to continue waiting. Ben thinks we’re in a better position to expand into other languages today than when he wrote this post, e.g. see his more recent comment.
Again, apply here if you’re interested in helping with translation work.
Surprised to see no Indian languages mentioned in the language list. I realize it's non-exhaustive but would have expected Hindi to make such a list over other languages, given the number of speakers.
Yep, this list isn't intended to rule anything out. We'd certainly be interested in getting applications from people who want to get content translated into Hindi or other Indian languages.
Maybe translations into Mandarin could be useful too, not only because there are >1B speakers, but also because influential Chinese EAs may end up being very impactful in reducing AI risk (e.g. wrt AI race dynamics).
If you are interested in translating Peter Singer's books to Polish, I highly recommend Elżbieta De Lazari.
She is a professional translator and linguist, knows Singer personally, and has previously translated i.a. The Life You Can Save and The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.
If you're interested, I'm happy to reach out to her, asking whether she is interested and make an introduction.
I would hire her for any translation to Polish (if she has time), but especially Peter Singer's. The quality of her translations is superb (I read both English and Polish versions of Singer's books for my PhD, so I know she is just excellent). She translated 3 of his books I think, and would be the best person for translating EA stuff as well if she has time and availability - worth checking and booking her time in advance because she always works on some books.
Thanks, really appreciate the concrete suggestion! This seems like a good lead for anyone who wants to supervise Polish translation.
We're making translations of a lot of EA content into Russian and have an experience that might be relevant to countries where people mostly can't speak English.
We learned that you need introspective people to evaluate or do the translations.
The best professional translators in our language are mostly hired by large publishing houses and have long-term commitments for many books to come (and the publishing houses aren't able to lease them for our projects).
Surprisingly, looking at a translation that looks like a good text in our language but has significant mistakes, most people wouldn't notice the mistakes. Most people who aren't the best professional translators don't actively try to recognize what exactly they just read. When a translation expresses something really different from what the original text conveys, but the words are similar enough, people just don't notice it.
Google Translate was better at not making mistakes than 80% of translators that sent us a translated test segment. We ended up hiring two translators from the EA/LW community.
A lot of the 80,000 Hours' articles are highly optimized for conveying a correct understanding, and translation errors might significantly reduce the value of the texts.
Another important skill for supervising translators:
And if the translators are semi-professionals drawn from the community:
I've seen problems from a lack of these in one translation project.
Strongly recommend changing the recommendation from "bilingual people" to "translators." While many bilingual people are easily able to do casual translation, someone who is actually trained as a translator and who works as a professional translator will generally do a much better job.
Merely being bilingual doesn't quality someone to be a translator, any more than my ability to use a keyboard qualified me as a stenographer or my ability to ride a bicycle qualifies me to me a bicycle messenger.
I'll stand by the title here. I think a bilingual person without specific training in translation can have good taste in determining whether or not a given translation is high-quality. These seem like distinct skills, e.g. in English I'm able to recognize a work badly translated from French even if I don't speak French and couldn't produce a better one. And having good taste seems like the most important skill for someone who is vetting and contracting with professional translators.
Separately, I also think that many (but not all) bilingual people without specific training in translation can themselves do good translation work. The results of our pilot project moved me towards this view (from a prior position that put a decent amount of weight on it).
As a high-level note, I see the goal here as enabling people to engage with EA ideas where they couldn't before. It's important that quality be high enough that the ideas are transmitted with good fidelity. But I don't think we need to adhere to an extremely high and rigorous standard of the type one might have when translating a literary work, e.g. I don't think we need translations to read so fluently that one forgets the material was originally written in English. I think this work is urgent and important, and I think the opportunity costs of imposing that kind of standard would be significant.
Adding onto this, it's also generally accepted that you should only do serious translation work into a language that you speak natively. For instance, an English-German bilingual with German as their native language should not translate German content into English, only English content into German. So what you need are not just people who are fluent in English and some other language, but people who have some other language as their native language.
What if we have two native tongues?
I was also surprised to read the section "how do EAs compare to professional translators on the quality of the products they produce?" which makes me update slightly towards it not being that much of a deal.
How will you pay people? By word or by hour? What range of rates are you open to paying?
We've been paying people based on time spent, rather than by word. The amounts are based on our assessment of market rates for high-quality freelance translators for the language in question online, though my guess is this will be a more attractive than being a freelance translator because it's a source of steady work for a long period of time (e.g. 6 months).
(probably stupid) question: is this just for people that are bilingual? I'm learning Spanish and plan to live in Madrid for the next academic year, and this is something I would be interested in working on as I immerse myself in the language further, but I certainly wouldn't yet (and wouldn't before the end of the program, and maybe not even at the end of the program) classify myself as "bilingual".
A suggestion: consider using DeepL as a first step. I discovered it a couple of months ago and found it to be astonishingly good, much better than Google Translate. In my experience it almost eliminates the need for "translators" as opposed to "proofreaders", which might save a lot of time and money. As an experiment, I've just pasted the initial few paragraphs of Astronomical Waste into it and translated them into Polish. The result was understandable and grammatically correct; there were a few clunky phrases that a person fluent in Polish could quite easily rewrite in a more elegant way in a few minutes.
I don't agree with that, Karolina. There are dozens of EA terms that were so far extremely poorly translated to Polish; even "doing the most good" is very problematic in translation to Polish. I think for Polish, we need a professional translator, like Elżbieta de Lazari (Peter Singer's translator), who will tackle classic EA terms, because, when translated literally, they sound horrible and make the EA language very awkward and unappealing. I already saw many EA Poland group translations that sounded quite poorly. It was very clear to me that a translator is very much needed. Check EA Poland website or social media posts from some time ago to see how unfortunate the translations can be. They're just not written in natural language, so someone with a lot of experience in translation should really give it a go.
What of a situation in which English happens to be the official language, but there is a local language that 30 million + people are speaking?
Hi Zakariyau. This seems like it definitely meets the criteria of a language with >5m speakers — I don't have the context, but I don't think English being the official language would be a barrier of any kind.
Thanks for sharing, Eli.
Have there been any cost-effectiveness analyses of work on translations? Based on the 2 bullets following the above, it feels like it is unclear whether it is worth funding (i.e. it could be or not).
I'm curious to hear how this has been going.
Also, thanks for doing this! I think it's a really high impact service and I'm glad you're making it happen.
This is so exciting! I’m really happy that OP is investing in this. Very much looking forward to seeing all the translated content and the new community members that it will bring ☺️ Thanks so much for your work on this.
Is this supposed to link to this section?
Ah, that's my bad — thanks, fixed.
I know some fluently bilingual english/spanish speakers who are not involved in EA (extended family members and connections - my wife is Dominican). Obviously the Dominican Republic is not a rich country, and some of them have pretty low incomes. Would it be appropriate to forward this opportunity to them?
Hi Nathan — I think that probably wouldn't make sense in this case, as I think it's important for the person leading a given translation project to understand EA and related ideas well, even if translators they hire do not.
will add this opportunity to the EA opportunity board!
A few weeks ago, I tried to find a Chinese version of "A life you can save" or "Doing good better" to send to my parents. I was so surprised to find that no one has translated them yet. This is a great start!
Have you considered holding out some languages at random to assess the impact of the program? You could e.g. delay funding for some languages by 1-2 years and try to estimate the difference in some relevant outcome during that period. I understand this may be hard or undesirable for several reasons (finding and measuring the right outcomes, opportunity costs, managing grantee expectations).
Unfortunately I think this kind of experimental approach is a bad fit here; opportunity costs seem really high, there's a small number of data points, and there's a ton of noise from other factors that language communities vary along.
Fortunately I think we'll have additional context that will help us assess the impacts of these grants beyond a black-box "did this input lead to this output" analysis.
Is there any evidence that translation efforts are effective to reach people who do not have English as their first language? My impression is that native German speakers <35 years with a university degree understand written English perfectly well, although some prefer German. Listening and especially speaking can be a bit more challenging. As a rule of thumb, the younger the person, the better their English (due to YouTube, Netflix, etc.).
Is professional translator assigned by Open Phil or can I may I suggest translator I have found?
EA France plans to launch a translation project soon to have key EA web content translated by a professional. If you're a French speaker who wants to do translation work, please get in touch so we can make sure we're not duplicating work.
I will also create a public database of what we're planning to translate and how much progress we've made. Anyone who wants to translate or has translated EA content into French is welcome to add their own articles there! The link will be shared on the EA Groups Slack (channel #french-speaking-groups), I'm also happy to share it by DM with anyone who requests it.