How Bad is Buzzfeed in Translation?

For the past four months, Buzzfeed has been using students from the language-learning site Duolingo to translate its content into French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The bottom line, naturally, is that it’s cheaper: Duolingo (which claims to teach languages better than universities — a college education is really superfluous now that we have the Internet!) translates for Buzzfeed for an average of $.04/word, “compared to an industry standard of $.06 – $.10.” In fact, Duolingo’s price is even more bargain-basement, since standard industry rates are actually a good deal higher than this. The students don’t see the money; their benefit is getting to take Duolingo’s online language classes for free.

It’s pretty obvious that this is a bad idea. What web publication or online business would want to put its image and reputation into the hands of people who are only just learning the languages they are translating? Even studying a language for years, or speaking it with fluency, are not sufficient conditions to work as a professional translator. So I took a look at the French Buzzfeed to get a sense of what a train wreck this might be.

Well, the site is a train wreck (more on that in a moment), but the translation problems are less of an issue than I thought. Since Buzzfeed mostly consists of listicles, most of the articles are heavy on images, light on text. “41 Things That Will Fill Every Control Freak With Uncontrollable Rage” becomes “41 choses que tous les obsédés de la perfection détestent.” (The French Buzzfeed dials back the paroxysms of hyperbole that are a Buzzfeed staple.) This “article” (using the term very loosely) consists of of photos of things that are not installed or put together properly. I found a few mistakes in the photo captions, but they were pretty minor. I guess I should have realized that you don’t read a Buzzfeed story; you click and consume some gifs and jpegs.

But the French Buzzfeed is still a train wreck, however, because there’s been no real effort to create a true French version of the site. Articles in English alternate randomly with articles in French, creating a strange hodge-podge. While web publications such as the Huffington Post (which partnered with Le Monde to create HuffingtonPost.fr) and Slate have created real French versions, using French journalists and a selection of articles from their English-language sites that have been professionally translated into French, Buzzfeed is just injecting some French language sporadically into its regular site.

They did hire two French journalists. One of them recently posted something called “22 questions que les étrangers se posent sur les Français” (“22 Questions that Foreigners Ask about the French”). It’s entirely based on French translations of shamefully ignorant, stereotype-laden tweets from Americans, e.g. “Why do French people sound like they’re spitting all the time?” and “Why do French people have weird noses?” OK, I didn’t expect great journalism from Buzzfeed, but this is really a new low. Are there plans to add a XENO tag for xenophobic content, along with LOL and CUTE?

If this is Buzzfeed’s journalism in French, then I guess I’ll take “Which Superhero Are You?” or “30 Célébrités Qui Ont Joué Dans ‘Veronica Mars'” translated by just about anybody.