On Some Flaws of Community Efforts

As a methodology:
Wiki. Does. Not. Solve. Many. Problems.
Open-source. Does. Not. Solve. Many. Problems.
In fact.
Democracy. Does. Not. Solve. Many. Problems.

They are merely the best methods we have for certain problems, in certain situations.

Why am I talking about these things, since Neechin is about games and translations? Well, a few weeks ago, the topic of community based translation efforts for projects came up on VisualNew’s Forums. Things got pretty heated at moments, and it all got started at the original poster’s implication that, looking at the CLANNAD project’s progress, community based efforts were, in some way/in some cases, better/comparable to having a single translator, or a small group of translators.

Not particularly surprisingly, the majority of the translators frequenting the forum came out pretty skeptical about the whole notion, myself included. But, the episode got me thinking, and I’ve cleaned up some of my posts and added some more thoughts on the topic here.

It’s not that I’m against the ideals of the above. I live in the US, maintain some small FreeBSD servers, and use Wikipedia frequently. But what sets me off, is when the inevitable twit comes along and thinks that somehow these things magically will make things work better, like for instances, a translation.

For every Gaim on Sourceforge, there’s a thousand projects that will never get past alpha. For every Wikipedia, there’s probably hundreds of small public/private wikis that are cesspools of uselessness and ill maintenance. And well, if you’ve ever watched a small group try to do everything by democracy…

Now, if CLANNAD project finishes, which they’re probably going to, I’d maintain that it was a tiny group of people. The good old Pareto Principle leads me to believe that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the participants. So, the project will live or die, according to those core members.

What people seem to fail to realize is that, it’s people that are the problem. And it’s people who are the solution. Not blindly piling on more people, but finding, and utilizing the right people. At the best, opening things up to the community is a big advertisement trying to lure in “the right people.”

Think about it, just about anything that needs doing in the world, requires special talents. Even something as simple watching for smoke on a hill requires someone that can see. And while it may be nice and democratic to include blind people in the actual spotting of smoke on a hill, at best they probably keep whoever can see company, and at worse they’ll get in the way or somehow screw things up, like distracting said spotter.

Community based translations are just like this. We’ve got a script, why not just open it up to the world, and let translators from all over have at it! Right?

Other people in the thread mentioned lots of valid reasons why it’d be difficult for such a scheme to work. There’d be no enforced continuity, so there’d have to be an editor to give it one voice and generally clean it up. And much as I didn’t want to admit it until I took freshman writing and read my peer’s work, forget about Japanese ability, there’s lots of people around who can’t put together a decent English sentence, even when it’s their first, and only, language.

Fact of the matter is, when it comes to specialized skills, pretty much by definition, there are people who aren’t right for a task, and often, there are LOTS of them. That in itself isn’t a problem. The problem is that, there are LOTS of people, who are the wrong people for a task, and don’t know they’re the wrong people.

You can make an argument that some people aren’t fully qualified for something, but are “close enough.” I’ll even grant you that such a grey area definitely exists, but at some point, wherever you want to draw the line without looking ridiculous, there are unqualified people, and from that group, you can usually find someone who believes they’re qualified.

For example, just randomly surveying translations of various fansub anime and manga floating around. While I don’t pretend to be anywhere near a professional translator, I see that there are some projects that have translators that are clearly around, or above my level of ability when I compare what I read against the original.

Then, there are many more who get many things wrong, clearly wrong, undeniably wrong. And then there are those who not only get things horribly wrong, but they one-up the previous group by failing to make sense in English on top of it all.

Even being generous and assuming that all 3 groups are equally sized and at random one comes along to work on an open translation project I’m working on, I really don’t like those odds. They’re all people who believe they’re qualified to do translations, because, they’re doing them. And I’d be happy working with the first 1/3rd of them, while the other 2/3rds of the time I’ll be going and rechecking their work, which should take about as much time as it does to do it myself.

In fact, let the other 2/3rds come anywhere near my own work with edit permissions, and there’d be blood flying high into the air. Skew the proportions to reflect the true population distribution, and I might as well just throw my hands up in despair.

I’ve got little interest in CLANNAD myself, having finished only one Key game in my life, and that was Planetarian, which I found somewhat dull; but from a brief 5 minutes flipping through the project, they seem to have at least one translator of the first type. So, provided that translator, or the many translators, don’t get tired and disappear, the project’s good.

The only thing that the wiki model has going for it is that if a person disappears, the framework is in place to inject someone new without much fuss. It’s still a people problem, and could be solved without a wiki, but, at least the translator can’t go AWOL without coughing up the latest version of the script.

Now, if the community of translators who were all working on a project, were of comparable level of skill, then things will be interesting. Just like how science is (supposed to be) peer reviewed, a peer-reviewed translation process, might be manageable, to a point. Maybe. There’s lots of issues with the peer-review system as well, and the “GRand Unifying Editor” (a.k.a. The GRUE) still probably needs to exist for the translation.

But then, I’d just as soon find someone I know I can trust to work on something, and just work with them without bothering with the whole community nonsense. Solve the people issue directly without all this roundabout nonsense.

Am I elitist and defiant of democratic ideals? When it comes to things that are better served by meritocracies, you bet.

P.S.: The next person who uses the “Well, the people contributing to X project are doing it for free in their spare time, don’t expect so much, or do it yourself” argument on me will get a beating with a Clue-Stick™.

As an end user, sometime contributor, I don’t mess with things outside my domains of training and ability, if I’m not qualified as a developer, I’m not going to screw up a qualified developer’s work by butting in. However, as an end user, I am qualified to give feedback on usability, features (i.e. I have academic training in Human-Computer Interaction, etc.), as well as do other things.

In general, asking people who use what you’re making to arbitrarily lower their standards, is a Bad Idea™. As users, we’ll accept “not yet” or “too difficult for our resources,” we’re reasonable people who understand that life is complicated. But really, don’t treat us like idiots. We ask for things because you’re the experts and we have faith in the experts. If we could’ve done it ourselves, we would have done it already without bothering you.

P.P.S.: Oh, and double Clue-Stick™ beatings for people who use the argument against people who can, and regularly do, meet higher bars of standards, for free, in their spare time.


  1. 03/08/2007 02:13 PM | #

    Rofl… pity I closed the thread because of the annoyance it was generating in me (and probably quite a few other people) cause I would loved to see this post go onto the thread =D.

  2. 06/01/2008 07:12 AM | #

    I’ve always seen the wiki method as nothing more than a handy method of plonking scripts imo…

    But you’re right with the main point: All projects need a leader and it’s the leader who decides things.

    Personally I’d test translators by handing hem a page from any Nasu work and see what happens from there, lol. But that’s a bit too cruel don’t you think?

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