The Internationalization of Trekking the Planet Education Materials

In this article, Darren discusses how advances in machine translation are making it possible for all children to eventually take advantage of the materials produced by the Trekking the Planet team.


In the past, only English speakers could use our materials. But, with the Trekking the Planet Internationalization initiative, students from around the world can benefit.

The topic of Artificial Intelligence has been around for a long time. From the beginning of computing in the 1950s, scientists have attempted to leverage the computer to translate one language to another. In the first such experiment, a team attempted to translate the passage “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” from English to Russian and back. It came back “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.” Scientists have been working on this problem ever since!

Website Internationalization

Fortunately, the area of machine translation has made great strides in the intervening years. In fact, very sophisticated translation software is now available right in your browser. We have been using the Google Chrome browser extensively on this trip. One great feature it has is that it uses Google Translate to automatically detect a mismatch between our mother tongue and the language on a website we are viewing. Then it will ask if a translation is needed. For example, I used it to look up instructions for configuring my smart phone to work with a Polish SIM card. Sandy used it when she was reviewing Bulgarian bus schedules. Imagine the text on the pages, the menu and even the buttons translated before your eyes in just seconds. Seconds!

In the past, only English speakers could use the TTP materials. But, with the Trekking the Planet Internationalization initiative, students from around the world can benefit.”

We have taken another step that allows students from around the world to read our website, regardless of which browser they use. We have added the WIBYA software to our website which gives visitors the ability to select their preferred language. WIBYA also uses Google Translate behind the scenes. This means that all of the articles written for students and armchair travelers alike are now available in any of 62 languages. is also fully compatible with the Apple iPad and Android tablets!

Video Internationalization

Another major translation step we have taken is with our videos. To date, the Trekking the Planet project has produced more than 50 videos through YouTube (and two other alternative sites), sometimes from very remote locations such as Nepal, Kyrgyzstan or Lapland, a region above the Arctic Circle. Most videos, filmed in documentary format, cover the places we visit using geography as the lens, highlighting the human and physical aspects of the country or region.

The engineers at Google have been at work here too building a machine transcription tool that converts the audible version of what is said on camera to closed-captioned text. Though this technology is very advanced, it is not perfect. When viewing one of our recent videos the “Painted Monasteries” became the “cated monasteries” and the murals became “abdominals”. Fortunately, Google has made another feature available that allows the producer of a video to upload the transcript of what is said on camera. Then, through some sort of voodoo magic, the system marries the uploaded transcript with machine transcription to line up the right words to the video timing.

Closed-captioned text is controlled via the CC button on the bottom of the YouTube screen. If you would like to see an example of this closed-captioned text, click below to watch “The Painted Monasteries of Romania” video with the CC button already on.

Since we write scripts for the on-camera commentary (displayed on a teleprompter) and for the off-camera voice over, it is a very simple step to upload the transcript immediately after completing the video. The result? The hearing impaired can view our videos. And, students and other viewers can receive a more-accurate translation of the commentary by setting their preferred language and invoking the machine translation feature. The only downside to this machine translation is that it is not from a native speaker, so it may not be totally accurate.

Looking ahead to our time in South America we have begun a formal translation project to the Spanish language for our vidoes. Spanish is the third-most spoken language in tie world, after Mandarin Chinese and English. Here, we are working with Spanish-speaking educators to help create an accurate Spanish translation that we can upload to YouTube and be used along with each video. We would like to thank Fernsndo, Albert and Christina for their volunteering on this!

Here, we are working with Spanish-speaking educators to help create an accurate Spanish translation that we can upload to YouTube and be used along with each video.”

We have already begun to upload the first Spanish-translated transcripts of our videos to YouTube. This is also controlled via the CC button in YouTube. Click below to watch an example of a Spanish-translated video.

To Come…

Our final hurdle is the four-page geography education modules that we include in our free newsletter each week. To date, we have published over 40 of these. We will release 60 before the end of our journey. These education modules (or edmods as we call them) are stored in PDF format. The problem is that these documents not only have text in the middle of the page but also in the margins. Some of the text is even rotated slightly. Imagine what would happen if we translated this! If the translated text was slightly longer than the original text, it might overflow the box that we assigned for it. In addition, not all of it should be translated. For example, the edmods contain web addresses that would no longer work if they were. Thus, we must either produce multiple versions of the PDF document or host it on our website so it is available through a browser.

We will continue to explore how our Trekking the Planet materials can be made available to all of the students of the world, not only in English, but other languages as well.

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