Cumulative number of courses translated over time, by language. Note: "Chinese" includes multiple dialects. (Image: Nicholas Rougeux)

They speak Bulgarian, Italian, Arabic, Mandarin, Greek, Farsi, and more. Together, they’ve put thousands of hours into making complexity research accessible to people around the world.

“Subtitle heroes,” as they’re known in the SFI education office, are a community of people worldwide who have dedicated their time to making SFI’s online courses available in 63 languages to date.

Since its inception, SFI’s online education platform, Complexity Explorer, has been dedicated to making complexity science accessible. While this mission initially involved keeping all core content free, it has expanded to o er language accessibility as well, with subtitles in multiple languages, including English. What most viewers don’t realize is that these subtitles are provided by volunteers, many of whom are former students in the courses themselves who want to stay involved and give back to the community.

“If you can’t donate, you can participate,” says Linden Schneider, SFI’s Online Education Coordinator. “It’s a way for people to contribute to the platform. And they give us so much.” Worldwide accessibility — facilitated by a global, cooperative network — also has added resonance in today’s political climate.

“In this moment, the international reach of Complexity Explorer feels more important to us than ever,” says Dave Feldman, SFI’s interim Vice President for Education. “That reach includes those living in countries whose governments are at odds with ours.”

As of this year, the top non-English languages offered as subtitle options are Arabic, Spanish, and Mandarin. However, offering captions in English is also a core piece of the project, as it makes courses accessible to those who are non-hearing as well as those for whom English is a second language. A good English transcription can also speed up the process of subtitling in other languages, since subtitlers have a textual foundation from which to work.

In 2014, when the subtitling project was launched by then-interim VP for Education, Melanie Mitchell, much of the organization of subtitling was painstakingly in-house with a small team of volunteers. Now, the Education team works with the subtitling platform Amara, a branch of the Participatory Culture Foundation, to help recruit volunteers, coordinate assignments, and monitor the accessibility of individual courses. All subtitling is done on a volunteer basis, though individuals who subtitle 120 minutes or more receive a free Complexity Explorer T-shirt as a gesture of thanks.

“What [the pro-level Amara platform] allowed us to do was to open it up completely to anybody,” says Gabrielle Beans, former ComplexityExplorer Program Manager. Volunteers can choose which videos they work on, and the Education team has up-to-date accessibility data on every video.

So far, 467 people have contributed subtitles to Complexity Explorer. In 2019, two subtitlers, Diego Diaz Cordova and Hazm Talab, broke the 600-minute mark for the first time.

For Diaz Cordova, who is based in Buenos Aires, subtitling is a way to give others access to the courses he’s enjoyed. “I thought it was a great idea to start to translate to Spanish, not only because it is a way to reach Spanish language communities, but a way to retake the course for my own and get a more comprehensive view about complexity and chaos,” he wrote in an email. “Subtitling was a great opportunity to refresh the learned lessons.”

Talab, who subtitles in Arabic, recalls being inspired to get involved by the course on Dynamical Systems and Chaos — taught, as it happens, by Feldman. “I was studying mathematics and was interested in the computational approaches for solving mathematical problems, and I found Complexity Explorer presenting amazing courses that deal with the subjects both theoretically and computationally,” he wrote from his home base in Istanbul, Turkey. A huge draw, he adds, is the knowledge that he is contributing to a free, accessible knowledge base.

To know that someone who maybe thousands of miles away is paying such close attention to the words you’ve spoken is, for Feldman, a humbling thought. It’s difficult, he says, “to capture the magnitude of what some of these folks have done.”

Most thrilling, perhaps, is the way in which the global subtitling project is self-referential: its network-based structure and emphasis on collective knowledge reflect the very content that Complexity Explorer teaches.