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Wikipedia: Localization in a Free Content Community

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Wikipedia is now the second most visited reference web site on the internet. Run by volunteers, its goal is to create and maintain a free encyclopedia with a neutral point of view in every language on the internet. Gerard Meijssen, an active volunteer with the Dutch Wiktionary and Initiator of the Ultimate Wiktionary, explains how the Wikimedia Foundation works and describes some of its latest projects.

Gerard MeijssenThe total size and traffic of all Wikipedias doubles in size every 4 to 6 months.

Wikipedia is one of the most-visited web sites on the internet – in the top 100, according to Alexa. The total size and traffic of all Wikipedias doubles in size every four to six months. According to a report released by Hitwise (requires free registration) in May, the weekly market share of U.S. visits to Wikipedia has grown over 600 percent since the beginning of 2004, making it the second most visited reference web site. In other words, Wikipedia now is more popular than Microsoft's Encarta or The New York Times Company's

The report also describes how Wikipedia is becoming a high-powered magnet for internet searches, with nearly 600,000 "living" articles to date. A ranking of all web sites based on the total volume of traffic received directly from search engines placed Wikipedia at 146 in June 2004. By September 2004, it had jumped to 93 and to 71 by December. In March of this year, it was the 33rd most popular site in terms of visits received from search engines.

All Wikipedia projects have the same purpose: to create a free encyclopedia with a neutral point of view in every language on the internet. Originally, Wikipedia was envisioned as an incubator for articles that were to be published in Nupedia, a peer-reviewed encyclopedia. However, this did not happen because Wikipedia proved to be so popular, and the quality so good, that there was no need for the peer review step.

Wikipedia grew, and eventually versions in other languages were added. When a need arose for other projects, they were created. For example, Wiktionary contains lexicological information and Commons contains digital imagery and sound.

It must seem from the outside that what we have is total anarchy.

As you can imagine, it is a wonderful experiment where issues like globalization, internationalization, localization and translation are part of what we deal with everyday. Contrary to what the typical LISA Member has available, we do not have an organizational structure that decides what to do next. We do not have policies that determine what content is to be available in all Wikipedias. We do not translate content as a rule. Therefore, it must seem from the outside that what we have is total anarchy.

Each Wikipedia has its own community of people that contributes content. And there are several ways in which articles are conceived. There are articles where the bulk is written by the first author; there are articles that start from a small beginning and evolve over time; and there are translations. There is also a community of bot operators who link articles on the same subject.

Editor’s Note: A bot is short for robot. A piece of software that has been created and designed to complete certain minor but repetitive tasks automatically and on-command; often used to search large amounts of data for certain patterns and return a list of results. (Source:

These links allow people to compare the information among the separate Wikipedias, at the same time that they encourage cross-fertilization. This is one of the important mechanisms to ensure that the global aims of the Wikimedia Foundation are supported and maintained, i.e., making information freely available that is based on a neutral point of view.

NOTE: Under the terms of our license, the copyright remains with the person who originally created the content. Who the author is can be found through the history of the articles. Possible relations between articles and translations can be found through interwiki links.

The question of who owns the rights to the translated version of a Wikimedia article is, to a large extent, a non-issue. When an article is published in one of the Wikimedia projects, it is published either under a GNU-FDL or a Public Domain license. Therefore, an article does not have a monetary value.

Typically, Wikimedia articles are not literal translations. Instead, they are usually rewritten, and the link to the original article is maintained through interwiki links. When a contributor provides a more literal translation, it is often mentioned that it was translated from a particular Wikipedia. This does not mean, however, that only one person can claim this text. Typically, articles are the result of the cooperation of many authors.

In summary, nobody really owns any Wikimedia content. We are, however, proud of our contributors, and we honor them in our article history and in our statistics.

Each Wikipedia project has a different view of “the Truth.”

As the projects grow, we find that they have different values and a different view of “the Truth.” These are the issues where culture comes into play. Personally, I have never handled a gun, and I am proud of it. However, many Americans do not appreciate that carrying a gun is not a God-given right, but rather that it is simply an attitude based on a particular cultural view. Due to these differences in outlook, an article on guns will be different in the Dutch and the English versions of the Wikipedia. Another controversial subject is religion. However, as I write this article, I have discovered that the Dutch Wikipedia has substantially more articles on Roman Catholicism than does the Italian Wikipedia, contrary to what one might expect.

The Wikimedia Foundation is run by a “benevolent dictator.”

An organization to coordinate all of the various projects does exist in the form of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), which is the owner of the servers that host the Wikimedia projects. The WMF has a board, headed by the founder of both Wikipedia and the WMF, Jimmy Wales. Wales is a great believer in “dolce far niente,” leaving as much of the decisionmaking process as possible to the individual communities. Even in his role as WMF Chairman, he leaves decisions very much up to the other board members. The result is that he has the moral authority to do good.

Localization in a Free Content Community: Wiktionary

Wiktionary is the lexicological sister project of Wikipedia. When lexicological content was added to Wikipedia, there were many people who believed that it did not fit well within the encyclopedic format. Therefore, it resulted in a new project: Wiktionary. For a long time, Wiktionary was an English language project only; however, its aim was to include all words of all languages. This has resulted in a wealth of Chinese content, along with parallel efforts in many other languages.

All of these Wiktionaries had the same goal, i.e., all words of all languages – an ambitious project which soon became overambitious. It would have meant thousands of projects all aiming at the same Holy Grail.

Editor’s Note: An artifact in Christian mythology, being either the cup used at the Last Supper or a cup that caught some of Christ's blood during the Crucifixion. It is used in this instance to mean that the goal is unattainable. (Source:

There was a need for a solution, and it was partially resolved by implementing templates. This way {{-noun-}} could be understood as noun in English and Zelfstandig naamwoord in Dutch. This was an improvement, as it enabled users to easily copy content from one Wiktionary to another. However, it was only a partial solution in that several projects did not adopt the same templates, thus preventing updates.

Our challenge will be to translate the user interface in as many languages as possible.

Using this imperfect system of templates has taught us that 80% of the lexicological content can be expressed using templates. The next step will be for us to combine all the language-independent content in a database. Our challenge will be to translate the user interface in as many languages as possible. This is the first hurdle to make the Ultimate Wiktionary accessible in any language. The next step is to encourage people with language knowledge to contribute to the Wiktionary by providing descriptions and etymological information for various terms.

The Ultimate Wiktionary will become extremely relevant, based on the special content that it will contain. For example, we plan to include the GEMET thesaurus, the ecological resource of the European Community (EC). It will also be possible for users to add content in other languages, making the original thesaurus even more accessible and more valuable to more people. We hope to be able to cooperate with organizations such as the EC in order to host other glossaries and thesauri. As everyone is invited to contribute content, we envision this content being translated into many more languages and thus resulting in increased trade opportunities for the EC.

The current Wiktionaries will be converted to the Ultimate Wiktionary. This means that people will have access to the Dutch Wiktionary with many words in Papiamento, the Italian Wiktionary with many Neapolitan words, and the Kurdish Wiktionary with words in many different Kurdish dialects. The goal with the Ultimate Wiktionary is to overcome the fractured nature of individual Wiktionaries. By combining them into one central repository, people will be able to access a much greater variety of content, thus enabling the Ultimate Wiktionary to be greater than the sum of its separate Wiktionary parts.

We would like to see TBX implemented as one way to expand our content.

One novelty (for us) is that we want to allow for the automatic upload and download of data. Obviously, in this day and age, XML is the method to explore. As TBX is one of the important XML standards related to terminology, we would really like to see it implemented as one of the methods to expand our content.

Localization in a Free Content Community: Commons

Commons is a recent Wikimedia project started in October 2004. It is a central repository for digital imagery and sound, with more than 87,000 free images and 3,000 sound files for all Wikimedia projects. It is obvious that as the content grows, it will become increasingly important to have a system that enables people to quickly locate the images they need. Currently, most of the pictures are categorized in English, or can be located in English content that contains pictures. To make Commons accessible, the Wikimedia Foundation must localize the content.

How Work Gets Done in an Organization Like the Wikimedia Foundation

The quality and quantity of what is accomplished is astounding.

For some, this is the most interesting and surprising aspect of the WMF – how the work actually gets done. Even though most work is done by volunteers who do what they want when they feel like it, the quality and quantity of what is accomplished is astounding.

And it is important to note that content is not the only area in which we depend on volunteers – they also do the programming and administration. In the true spirit of free software, we have started to pay for some work, though. When commercial organizations want to host our content, they must now pay for the RSS feed. This contribution supports one programmer. A grant in the sum of EUR 5,000 will pay for a programmer to develop the Ultimate Wiktionary. Obviously, we are extremely thrifty when it comes to money.

If we could be bought, the WMF would be a very expensive organization.

If we could be bought, the WMF would be a very expensive organization. Similar organizations of a smaller size cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The funny thing is that, as a volunteer organization, we are not always taken seriously since people assume that we have no economic value. However, the WMF cannot be bought. Our biggest assets are our communities and our principles, based on free content with a neutral point of view for all people and in all languages.

Gerard Meijssen is an IT Security Officer living in Almere in the Netherlands. He is very active in the Dutch Wiktionary and the Initiator of the Ultimate Wiktionary. Working for/within the different Wikimedia projects (Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Commons ,etc.), Meijssen has gained extensive insight into the localization challenge for Open Content Communities. Be sure to check out his blog, Words and What Not.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
June 2005

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2005

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