Written by Chuan Yu.

There is a “tradition” in China of translating almost everything from other languages into Chinese. Since the arrival of the Internet about 30 years ago, the practice of translation has also moved online. A number of online translation communities have been established for various purposes. In general, there are two types: audio-visual and text-oriented translation communities. The former they can be further classified into two categories: fansubbing groups formed mainly for entertainment (for example, Zimuzu and TLF) and groups that translate open courses for educational purposes (for example, Sina and NETEASE’s open course channels). The translated content in the latter communities is highly textual, but features and purposes vary. There are communities which focus on sharing training materials on translation practice and information on freelance translation opportunities such as Yiwang (译网) and Fanyi Zhongguo (翻译中国). There are others that resemble both a BBS forum and a learning community like Longtengwang (龙腾网) or Yeeyan (译言). Others are socio-politically oriented and present themselves not only as translation communities but more profoundly as media platforms, where different voices on international politics, humanities and societies can be heard. Unfortunately, the last group of online translation communities often struggles to survive and most of these them die behind the Great Firewall (for example, Cenci Journalism Project 参差计划). Yeeyan is an interesting case – it is China’s “largest online translation community and crowdsourcing translation platform” (About Yeeyan), which has survived various transitions and exerted great social influence in multiple areas such as business, journalism and translation.

From a blog to a media portal

Yeeyan was founded by three Chinese engineers as a blog named “言多必得” (literally “the more you speak, the more you gain”) in 2006. At the time when the blog was initiated, the Internet had already become popular in China, where 82.6% of overall 123 million netizens used the Internet as their main channel to obtain information (CNNIC 2006). However, due to limited access to international websites and language barriers, many Chinese Internet users could not enjoy the World Wide Web in its entirety. Against this backdrop, the three founders decided to “discover, translate and share the essence of the Internet in languages other than Chinese (发现、翻译、分享中文之外的互联网精华)” (Yeeyan) with Chinese readers. Within three years, Yeeyan had gained a reputation in journalism circles and was awarded the title of “Most Valuable Information Website” in 2009 in China being described as “the Wikipedia of news translation” abroad. It became more and more like a media portal, with headlines on current events and editor / user-selected stories on the front page.

Yeeyan's old homepage
Yeeyan’s old homepage

Similar to many other media portals, Yeeyan.org classified articles into different categories such as Business (商业), Technology (科技), Culture (文化) and Society (社会) so that readers discover texts in the areas of interest. Simultaneously, Yeeyan distinguished itself from other news portals through its translation features: As an open-access community, the portal’s existence depended on its users and volunteer translators, who translated articles for free from more than ten foreign languages and numerous foreign media into Chinese. Their sources included mainstream media like The Guardian, The Economist and The New York Times, but also more specialised websites such as psychologytoday.com and nationalgeographic.com. All in all, Yeeyan provided Chinese readers with access to information and knowledge from all around the world in their native language. In the meantime, its innovative business model, which incorporates commercial and not-for-profit aspects, also became a topic of conversation.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, so Yeeyan did not expect to be forced to close by the government in 2009. Although the “real” reason behind the shutdown remains unknown, it was believed that Yeeyan acted as news media, which was not in accordance with what the website had registered for. After a 39-day hiatus, it reappeared with a new domain, a new theme and a new orientation.

Becoming a translation community

The current design of Yeeyan.org highlights its language and participation features: At the top of the portal, the navigation bar looks very translation-oriented. Readers are led to read the articles in different Groups (小组), Target Text Corpus (译文库) or Source Text Corpus (原文库) and are encouraged to sign up as members. As soon as they register as Yeeyan members, which is free, they are empowered to play an active role. In the community, user participation takes place in various forms like joining and creating groups, translating, recommending articles, commenting on translations and supporting/liking articles.

Current homepage design
Current homepage design

As a translation community, recommending articles and translating texts are Yeeyan’s most basic functions. They are also essential to the liveliness of the community. At the time of writing, there are 325,941 articles in at least ten languages waiting to be translated, while new source texts are uploaded daily. When the translation is done and has gone through a filtering process, it is published in the Target Text Corpus. So far, there are 375,718 translated articles which have been published on the website and are publicly accessible for the Internet users to read and circulate on other media platforms.

An example of TT’s publication in the Corpus
An example of TT’s publication in the Corpus

Credited translators

Translators (or community members) have always been the main protagonists of Yeeyan. According to Yeeyan itself, the website has 567,097 registered members who all get credit for their contributions – translations, comments and likings. Their names are clearly marked after each publication with some personal information presented next to the target texts. Moreover, if one wants to know more about a translator, a click on their name leads to a profile with more information: where they come from, what their occupation is, how long they been a member of Yeeyan, what languages they translate from and to and the activities they have participated in within the community. On a participatory platform like Yeeyan, members have multiple identities. They are readers and users, translators and commentators, proof-readers and editors. Not only can they play these roles on different occasions, they can also act as one or more at the same time.

The visibility of translators
The visibility of translators
Brief information on a translator
Brief information on a translator
An example of a Yeeyan translator’s homepage
An example of a Yeeyan translator’s homepage

As the above description has shown, there are various interesting issues warranting further investigation embedded not only in Yeeyan, but in online translation communities in general. Although those online translation communities in the Chinese Internet confront issues of censorship and government crackdowns, censorship or politics are not the only things happening on the Chinese Internet. There are many other issues one could delve into: After the shutdown, what made Yeeyan’s revival possible? Why have the users and members kept faith in it? How do they actually translate, especially in collaboration? Who are they online and offline? What are the intersections between their “two lives”? Where do the negotiations between the website and the authority, and between the participants themselves take place? And how do the answers to these questions impact the shaping of the Chinese Internet?

Chuan Yu is a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her current research focuses on collaborative translation, online translation communities, translation competence, translator behaviours and identities, and the use of ethnographic methodologies in Translation Studies research. Her research intersects with the disciplines such as Media and Communication Studies, Sociology and Anthropology.