Amara: A Wikipedia For Video Subtitles

Posted February 27

In July of 2012, PSY (born Park Jae-sang) put his video for “Gangnam Style” on YouTube. It quickly became one of the most watched, clicked, shared, played and parodied songs of all time, even beating out Justin Bieber’s “Baby” – and no one beats Bieber.

The song was catchy and goofy and instantly recognizable, and pretty much no one in the English-speaking world has any idea what the lyrics actually are. Sure, a little Googling reveals that PSY is making fun of the affluent Gangnam district in South Korea, but that’s kind of it.

Well, one company, Amara, is aiming to subtitle, caption and translate every video out there: from music videos, to TED talks to everything in between. “A lot of people come to Amara to watch and translate music videos,” says Nick Reville, Amara’s CEO. “We have ‘Gangnam Style’ in Esperanto.”

Amara was created in the past year as a way to democratize the Internet — one video at a time. While tools exist that can translate text and whole websites, video — one of the most important and vibrant elements of Internet culture — was basically untouched. It’s hard to come up with a tool that can reliably caption audio — and to do it at the pace that videos are created.

So instead, Amara took the Wikipedia-esque crowdsourced approach and applied it to video: Anyone can caption, subtitle or translate any video. Amara hosts none of the videos, but instead acts as a platform where people can compare notes, suggest edits and discuss the videos.

“The most important part is that views and fans are actually participating in the content,” Reville says. “We were just looking to give people a way that they can connect with each other more often.”

That might sound a little altruistic, but that’s OK; Amara is a non-profit and part of an umbrella called the Participatory Culture Foundation, a software company (and registered 501c3) whose mission is to expand the ways people can share media over the Internet. Amara has quickly become their biggest success, with support from the Mozilla Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, TED and more.

One of Amara’s biggest wins occurred during the Japanese Earthquake when a documentary on the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster and its nuclear fallout was translated into Japanese. The video was watched millions of times from Japanese IPs, Reville says. Another viral hit, the Kony 2012 video, was translated into 30 languages in about two days. It’s unclear if every click and every translation can be attributed to Amara, but it’s blazing a path to make those processes –- and the interchange of ideas through videos and across cultures –- even easier.

Amara finds its most obvious use in translating or subtitling educational materials for people in different countries or for the deaf or hard of hearing. (In fact, there is a section on Amara where the deaf or hard of hearing can request videos, which the community will then translate.)

But even a music video like “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction can bring people closer together. “We love working with educational stuff, we love content that has social importance,” Reville says, “but we also think that people can feel connected to people around the world by knowing what people are talking about. So even if it’s one interview with One Direction in Albanian, that can draw people together.”

In fact, music is one of the potential growth areas for Amara. Communities like Rap Genius have exploded thanks to the passion of fans discussing the meaning of lyrics. Something like Amara not only brings that discussion to other language groups, but makes it easier for anyone to add their two cents.

“Music creates such a strong emotional connection,” Reville says. “And when you have that connection, it’s just natural for people to dig deeper.”