Facebook may be poised to let users translate comments from other languages — that’s 750 million users around the world who are going to have an easier time talking to each other.
In tests that we and others are now seeing on some parts of the site (only on Pages, at this point), comments in languages other than your account’s current one now include “Translate” button next to them. If you click on the button, the comment is automatically translated to your account language. The Translate button is then replaced by “Original,” which if clicked will untranslate the comment.
Facebook has already successfully crowdsourced the translation of its site to dozens of languages, connecting millions of people to each other around the world in new and unexpected ways. For an interesting example, take a look at the aggressive international cooperation that happens between users trying to mutually advance in a social game like FarmVille.
Most users are not currently communicating much with people who speak other languages, simply because they can’t understand each other (unless they’re manually doing so through a third party service like Google Translate, as we sometimes do with commenters on our Facebook plugin for our site). And of course, users who already speak multiple languages won’t always need this tool.
But you can still see how there are some potentially very big use cases here. Page owners, especially for popular international icons, are deluged by comments across the languages that Facebook now supports. Chances are they don’t understand everything every fan has been saying, so they’ve had to rely on Google Translate or other tools instead. As the feature is only working for Pages now, Facebook seems to be focusing on solving that problem.
If Facebook introduces this feature to personal profiles and apps as well, one can also imagine some other interesting ways it’d be used. For example, immigrant families who speak more than one language often have generational communication divides, typically where older members speak the language of the home country while younger generations speak the language of the host country. They’ll now have an easier time using Facebook to relate to each other. Meanwhile, social gamers with international friends could have a much easier time collaborating to get more points in a game, organize protests, or anything else.
More pessimistically, users might use this feature to better understand each others’ flames, particular on Pages for controversial topics.
For now, it only seems to be available in a few languages, including Spanish, French, Hebrew and Chinese. And it also doesn’t always recognize the comments, delivering a “There is no translation available for this story at the moment” response or sometimes not finding the right individual words within sentences. But in testing that we’ve done or had reported by readers, it appears to be familiar with slang — see the example in the screenshot from reader Amit Lavi, who tipped us off about the change. The translation technology figured out how to communicate “totally cool” from Hebrew to English, for example. It’s possible that the tech is making use of existing translation input from users that it has already gathered in its translation app.
The feature could have far-reaching consequences for how people use Facebook, if not how they understand the rest of the world. We’ll see how the company decides to expand it from here. We’ved asked to for more details on how the feature works and what the plans for it are, and we’ll update with any response.