Despite a post-9/11 surge of Westerners learning Arabic, the world's fifth-most-spoken language, English and Arabic speakers are still largely segregated on the Web.
A new translation website called Meedan aims to close that gap. Meedan ("public square" in Arabic) is creating a public forum for English and Arabic speakers to translate, read, and debate Middle East news.
"There was a real dearth of opportunities [after 9/11] for Arabic speakers in the Middle East and English speakers in the US and elsewhere to interact and share their viewpoints on world events and to see where those viewpoints diverged," says George Weyman, community manager for Meedan. "It's crucial that we open up channels of communication between the West and the Middle East."
Relying on a combination of machine and human translation, the site offers Middle East news on pages split between English and Arabic. When users comment on a story, responses are automatically translated into either English or Arabic.
The site also recently partnered with the Global Citizens Corps, an international organization that connects young people around the world, to create a forum for Lebanese and American university students to discuss government transparency issues in the Middle East.
Previously, Global Citizens Corps ran its own site for this discussion, but it did not allow users to post in Arabic, only in English.
Meedan changed all that.
"For someone who doesn't speak Arabic and wants to know what is going on here [in the Middle East], this is the perfect tool," says Toleen Touq, a freelance editor for Meedan in Amman.
Unlike automated sites such as Google Translate, Meedan utilizes humans as well as computers to provide clearer translations. A posting is first translated by their automated system and then a human editor corrects any grammatical issues. The translation system is designed to learn from corrections, so the quality of automated translations is expected to improve over time. The updated translation data are open-source, and so are available for other translators to use as a resource.
Presently, the site has only five full-time employees, a dozen part-time editors, and about 15 part-time translators. Beyond that, the site operates like Wikipedia, where users can create accounts, edit translations, and suggest or contribute content.
Other sites offer translations of articles into English or Arabic. But what's unique about Meedan is that it's user-driven, says Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst who maintains the popular blog The Arabist. "Anyone can ... add a link to something ... that they're interested in somebody translating into Arabic."
There is no guarantee that a professional or volunteer translator will improve or clarify an automated translation, but the site's creators and commentators say it provides an unprecedented link between average people and translators.
"You can make friends with translators and ask them to help you with certain articles," says Mr. Weyman. "There are a great many potential uses for this."