Articles Etnopedia Team Articles

Why Etnopedia Does Not Automatically Update or Translate People Group Information

Several people have asked why Etnopedia does not use programs to automatically update or translate information between the different language portals. So I would like to take some time to answer the questions in-depth.

First, why does Etnopedia not automatically update key information?

As an example, if you changed the population figure on a people profile in the English portal, a program could then update the same profile within the German and Korean portals, etc., automatically.

And actually, programs and extensions do exist that allow this. So why aren’t we using them?

1. First, you take away the ownership and oversight responsibility of that translation team. For example, the German portal team owns, oversees and manages their project. There is no one person or committee over them telling them what to do. Of course there are standards we need to follow when doing unreached people research, but even those are not limiting the translation / portal teams. The German portal team members make their own decisions about their project. They are the holders of their work even though we all adhere to a basic standard. We communicate through the back channels and all know each other by our anonymous usernames. (We will write another article soon on what is the basic standard on Etnopedia.)

2. Had we built the system to automatically update between the language portals, we would have lost several new insights and improvements that came from the different portal teams. They each have new ideas, and because the Etnopedia project is all done by hand, they have the freedom to implement them. By allowing the various language portal teams to develop their information in other ways, best practices are discovered and shared among the entire Etnopedia community. We are all learning from and teaching each other.  If we allowed a program with one central data source to drive the project, we would lose the dynamic of growing a more knowledgeable community.

3. If a language portal were to automatically update the other portals, it would not allow any room for discussion. Many hundreds of emails have been sent discussing the complicated issues surrounding ethnic people information: population discrepancies, reachedness scale discrepancies, language assignments to ethnic peoples, Bible translation status, mapping and location information etc, etc. Had the system automatically updated those points, there would have been no discussion, no consensus. This interaction also adds accountability as more people are looking at your edits. This interaction is a critical aspect missing from most unreached people research efforts.

4. If Etnopedia were automated, it would not produce new researchers. It takes about six months for a portal team to understand the confusion surrounding unreached people information. Several important concepts must be learned in order to handle the information correctly, and so that assumptions are not made from the desk. The people naming issue alone is mindboggling. New researchers need to be very careful not to remove people groups based on armchair analysis. Such concepts take time to learn. So by automating we eliminate the ability to train and produce new researchers.

5. Automatic updates diminish any sense of community, and community is what the unreached people research movement desperately needs. If you just translate a people profile and have no say as to the sources and form of the profiles, you are merely a translator and not part of the overall research effort. In order to automate the updating process, a central source of the key information remains controlled by just a few people, not by the community.

6. If the system automatically updated key information, more coding would be required behind the people profile, complicating the translation process. This code also does not update with the core system software updates. If we paid a programmer to update the code every time we updated the core software, then the project would now depend on finances to pay that programmer. Also, imagine updating code across five or more language portals’ people profiles. This would create even more work for the portal teams and the translation effort. What was intended to help speed up the process of updating would effectively complicate and slow the entire project, burdening the portal teams with more work, and creating a need for more funding.

7. Finally, automating Etnopedia would diminish much of the energy sustaining the portal teams who are actively engaged in the profile updating process.

How does Etnopedia Update People Profiles?

The procedure is simple. All updates are done by hand by individuals in each language portal, with English used as the common, or ‘hub’ language for further updates. If for example, a member of the Indonesian portal updates a people profile in the Indonesian language, the same person may then update the same profile within the English language portal. As soon as the German language team sees this update within the English language portal, they subsequently update the same profile within the German language portal. If however, the Germans have doubts about the new change, discussion amongst the portal teams ensues. Rather than one person making an ‘educated’ assumption about a people group from their desk, such interaction amongst various researchers will ultimately reveal the most accurate information available. Detailed instructions on how to update people profiles can be found within the Etnopedia site at:

If you really think about it though, does it matter too much that one portal differs from another? We are all translating the same unreached people group profiles. If the reachedness scale changes this is very important and has to be given a source. That is the one key piece of information we need to agree on. All the other data is not as important.

I just looked up the Kibet people of Chad. On the German portal their population is 44,000 and was updated in 2010. The Spanish profile for the same people group shows a population of 37,609 and was updated in 2009. We date the populations, scales and Bible translation status so everyone knows the last year that the people group data was checked to a reliable source. Many would think negatively about the populations or other information not being perfectly in alignment. But I’m not too worried about it. Someone will eventually come along and update it.

The Bethany Prayer Profiles were printed on paper and distributed throughout thousands of churches and no one ever thought about how they would be updated after five years. You cannot update paper books, CD’s and the like. You can easily build a website driven by a database these days, but if your database is being maintained by a select few, it is not sustainable over the long-term. It really takes a community to update a collection of 5000+ unreached people profiles.

The People Profile: The Most Efficient Data Gathering Point on Unreached People Information.

The people profile is actually the most efficient data-gathering tool. We arrived at this conclusion after years of working in research. Why is this? First, because it is a single record of information accompanied by a history of changes made to it, and made visible to everyone. Second, it is the most responsible data-gathering tool. Too few pairs of eyes are looking at all the changes made to our traditional Microsoft Access databases. Finally, a people profile helps tremendously in clarifying the research. Over the years our team has made thousands of corrections to the world people group list because we read the profiles.

Contained within a single people profile are a representative photo of the people group, a list of countries in which they live, their population, religion, a Christian progress scale, alternate names, languages spoken, Bible translation status, location information, identity information, history, customs, prayer points, needs, a map of their location, references, sources, and links. The discussion page (the back page of the profile) contains the sources and dates of all the major world and field research efforts pertaining to that people group. All of this is worth updating by hand by the community, fostering interaction while at the same time training new researchers.

The people profile is located on ‘the cloud’, the most efficient data gathering point for all things pertaining to an unreached people group. Even if the profile is a little out of date, it is immediately available to the mission movement in their heart language. It’s all done on the cloud!

Why Does Etnopedia Not Use Automatic Translation Programs?

I know that there are still a few of you who would say “Why have a translation effort at all, especially with the availability programs like of Google Translate?”

For example, why not provide the ability for someone visiting Etnopedia to translate a people profile from English into their own language at the press of a button in their browser? 

1. First of all, automatic translators do not translate all ethnic people information with sufficient accuracy. We know this from experience and through extensive research. In the end we paid a high price for professional translation software for our office, which ended up serving only to aid a bilingual person speed up the translation process. No doubt Google Translate is improving, but how long will we wait for all of the translations to become reliable enough? English speakers really only view websites translated into English, which is one of the best supported and developed languages within Google Translate.

2. Removing human translators would stifle development of the research community, and portals would not be updated, etc. etc. You would also have to depend on a database driven site run by just a few people. Even a large community of English-only speakers updating the English portal would significantly limit the reach and knowledge of those one-language speakers.

I just took a portion of the Kibet people profile from German and translated it into English using Google Translate. Keep in mind English and German are probably two of the most highly developed languages in the Google Translate database. I am referring to them being translated from one to another (GERMAN-ENGLISH or ENGLISH-GERMAN) which produced the following results:

KIBET GOOGLE TRANSLATION GERMAN TO ENGLISH – “Of the six strains listed only the Tama and the Kimr have ever formed independent governments. The Tama are now citizens of the independent states of Chad and Sudan. They all inhabit sandy, hilly regions with similar climates, grow the same crops, addressed their apartment in the same way and have similar habits.”

“The historic capital of Tama-kidney was in Chad. The ruins of this city are still tour and sultans are still used there on the throne. During the 19th Century were dominated by Turko-Egyptian Sudan Tama. The Turkish rule was by French and British influence in the late 19 and early 20 Century detached.”

ORIGINAL ENGLISH – “Of the six tribes listed above, only the Tama and the Kimr have ever formed independent governments. Today, the Tama are citizens of the independent nations of Chad and Sudan. They all inhabit sandy, hilly regions with similar climates, grow the same crops, make their homes in the same manner, and have similar lifestyles.”

“The ancient Tama capital, Niere, was located in Chad. The ruins of this city can still be seen, and sultans are still being enthroned there. During the 1800’s, the Tama were dominated by Turko-Egyptian Sudan. The Turkish authority was replaced by French and British power in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.”  [try it on]

As you can see, even if we built a complex auto-updating and auto-translating unreached people group project, you would still have a lot of work to do. But if you did not know German, how would you make sure the German translation was done well? What are we saying to the German speakers of the world when we permit automated, yet inaccurate profile translations?

We still require a German translator. So why not build a community? You could enter the English profile into Google Translate and pop out a German profile, but it may be confusing, or worse, misleading. If the German translation program lacks so much, imagine Korean or Indonesian!

The effort needs translators that are part of a long-term community. While you could pay a group of German translators to do it once, you would have no way to add information, correct mistakes within the information, and more importantly, add new profiles for the unidentified people groups yet to be added. Now, imagine adding five additional languages into the process. We must let others join in the task, thereby distributing the workload. Simply create a German portal and allow the Germans to take ownership and responsibility of their research team. 

The Etnopedia team has also deliberated extensively about using technology to make the overall process quicker and easier. But the more do this, the more that we realize the need for long-term, bilingual human translators trained to understand unreached people research.

By automating the translation process, you also take away the motivation for that portal team to use the information to mobilize their own country’s churches.

When Etnopedia was created in 2008, its first language portal team was Vietnamese. In three to four months they translated about 40 profiles into Vietnamese. It was a slow process.  Then suddenly the portal died, or so we thought, when no more Vietnamese profiles were translated. I thought it was dead anyway upon finding out that the leader of the team left Vietnam. I decided to email him about a month ago this year (2011) to see if he would be willing to look for more translators. He told me that the Vietnamese church still uses the 40 original profiles, placing them in their church bulletins, praying over them, etc. Though they have not been updated since 2008, they are still being used. Note that the Vietnamese portal team only translated people groups found within Vietnam. This is significant when considering how to help local Christians grasp the vision to reach their own people local groups.

Had we merely automated the translation process and not allowed the translations to be done with care by first-language speakers, the Vietnamese church may have never used these profiles in mobilzation.

So we must ask ourselves, should we build systems to automatically update and translate unreached people information?

These same questions could be asked of the Wikipedia project, and possibly for very similar reasons they have found the answer: No.

So what about a hybrid?

Nor is a hybrid system the answer, i.e., half data-driven and half real translator-driven. This still excludes the translators from everything we have mentioned here. If you just have people doing translations and nothing else, you will take them out of picture.

We need to begin today to involve more people in this process. We need to move toward developing a global, multi-ethnic research community. Yes it is going to be a slow process. We were recently contacted from someone in India wanting to translate people profiles into Telugu (77 million speakers). In light of our points mentioned above, they can get involved, if we do not automate the process.

Join the Etnopedia Community today.