It’s been more than two years since Ackuna first introduced its translation platform to the world.

An off-shoot of New Jersey-based translation agency Translation Cloud (formerly Translation Services USA), Ackuna now dangles a giant internationalization carrot in front of app developers by letting them tap into an online community of language enthusiasts (note: generally NOT professional translators) to convert a bunch of text strings from one language into another. For free.

In its original guise, however, Ackuna wasn’t specifically for apps. And it was actually more of a portal that let people submit text to be machine-translated, which Ackuna would then offer professional translators as proofreaders.

Ackuna, in its current form, kicked off in March last year, and has iterated and sought feedback from its users along the way. As such, Ackuna has remained a (open) beta product, but as it recently notched up its 5,000th user, it’s now gearing up to shed its beta tags for good.

So we thought we’d take a quick peek behind the scenes to see what it’s all about.

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How it works

Anyone wishing to have their app translated can create an account which takes seconds, after which they indicate the source and target languages and upload their files.

Now, Ackuna works with ten file-formats – including .String (iOS), .XML (Android), .RRC (BlackBerry), .XLF and even .XLS, though the latter needs to be specially formatted before upload.

Give the project a name, description, link to the existing app (if, for example, an English-language version is already live on Google Play) and prepare to upload to the crowd.

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All texts are uploaded, translated and returned in the same format, and the translations are integrated directly into the coding.

From the translator’s perspective, they can browse projects by language, or simply scroll down the ‘Projects’ section and identify any project they wish to participate in, each of which is tagged with the required languages.

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Within each project, the translator will see a list of terms in the original source language, and then submits their suggestion for the translated text.

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Translations are peer-reviewed, much in the same way as how Wikipedia works – any edits that are made are always subject to checking by the broader community. And over time, translators increase their ‘clout’ and status, with a so-called reputation algorithm determining how ‘accurate’ a translation will likely be based on their prior work.

Although Ackuna is an off-shoot of Translation Cloud – an actual professional translation company – Ackuna doesn’t access its translation memory bank. That is, a database of previously-translated words and phrases, which can be tapped for identical or near-identical matches, thus bypassing the crowdsourced element.  So, a common app phrase such as ‘Check In’ may already exist in the database for your desired language.

Instead, Ackuna has been building its own translation memory based on work carried out on the platform itself. For me, they’re missing a trick here – if it could tap the existing translation memory of Translation Cloud, this would surely create a better value proposition.

Road out of beta

During the tail end of its beta phase, Ackuna has also added a professional translation facet to the service – so if you like using the Ackuna platform but don’t trust amateur translators, you can request this, costing $0.30 per word for all language combinations. And this will also ensure a speedier turnaround too, as you’re not waiting for an unpaid member of the Ackuna community to stumble upon the project.

“We initially planned for this site to be completely free and rely solely on crowdsourcing, similar to Quora, StackOverflow, Reddit, Wikipedia, and so on,” explains Ackuna’s Matt Bramowicz,  “so that it would grow in popularity and we would monetize through ads and perhaps venture funding. We weren’t sure about monetization at that point. Our main goal was trying to get the word out and develop a popular, self-sustaining resource for developers and language-enthusiasts.”

Though some people are plumping for professional translation, the vast majority of its users are still being enticed by the (free) crowdsourcing offering.

Why would anyone want to translate for free?

Such is the mysterious nature of any similar crowdsourced activity – people like to be part of creating something. But while that’s all well and good for something like Wikipedia which is not-for-profit, surely people don’t want to give up their time for developers who may make money from the translated apps? The Web is a strange place.

As we’ve seen with the likes of Twitter and Path, people are particularly keen when it’s something they themselves would like to see enter their own market, and use in their own language. And when you consider all those budding translators looking to simply gain some experience, well, that’s your workforce right there.

There is a big market for crowdsourcing just about everything – micro-tasks, graphic design and, of course, translation. Smartling offers crowdsourcing as part of its service, and raised a $10m Series B round earlier this year. While localization heavyweights SDL offers FreeTranslation.com which is a simple machine translation portal, alongside its BeGlobal crowdsourcing service. There are other similar services out there too.

So what Ackuna is doing isn’t particularly innovative or new in its own right, but if it can sell itself as the go-to company for app developers to take their wares to the global masses, it might stand a fighting chance.

Ackuna

See also: Localize this: A beginner’s guide to translating your mobile app