Mar 26

Allison Randal

Allison Randal

Software in Your Language

In Johannesburg I met with Dwayne Bailey of, a non-profit organization that creates and distributes versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, and in the 11 official languages of South Africa. They're also involved in the development of WordForge projects like the Pootle open source web framework for managing translation workflow and data (similar to Ubuntu's Rosetta), and Translate Toolkit to convert between the various different formats used to store translation data. They collaborate with a number of related projects such as's localization teams, Mozilla's localization project, the Cambodian KhmerOS, and the Tanzanian Kilinux, sharing translation efforts and tools.

In the 1990s, I worked for an NGO in Kenya developing early literacy materials in Sudanese minority languages. Extensive studies and academic journals show the benefits of teaching new subjects in the students' first language ("mother tongue" or "L1"). It has always struck me as odd that in the open source world English often passes for "good enough". Language is a significant barrier to adoption. When you combine learning a new language, with learning a new software tool, and with (in many cases) learning the fundamental metaphors of a GUI, the resulting mountain can be too steep to climb.

Beyond easing the learning curve and encouraging open source adoption, the translated software has a social and cultural impact as well. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life believing that your language was fine for social communication, but had to be abandoned for anything technical. Then twist the dial 180° to realize that all languages deserve equal respect and an equal opportunity to adapt, as vibrant living languages, to new situations. From the Khmer Software Initiative site:

We believe that in order to enter a digital world without forfeiting its culture, a country must do it by using software in its own language. Software in a foreign language exacerbates the digital divide, makes basic computer training difficult and expensive, closes computer-using jobs to people with little economic resources, impoverishes local culture, and blocks computer-based government processes, as the local language script cannot be used in databases.

One of the things I was looking for in my trip around the world was a change in perspective. I've spent too much time in the Silicon Valley watching yet another highly acclaimed (often open source) startup launch yet another fizzy-water website. It's refreshing to see open source projects changing the world.

tags: open source  | comments: 5   | Sphere It

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Comments: 5

  Ed M [03.26.07 05:04 PM]

Can you write a little more about what is involved with translating software packages as compared to something like the user generated content within this blog. Are their similarities with either tools and/or techniques used to translate either type of content?

  Cenk [03.26.07 06:11 PM]

There will be a class at CFUnited.

Multi Language Applications in CF in Theory and Practice

  Conficio [03.27.07 04:13 AM]

You are making a good point. Availability of software in one's native language also does allow millions of people to participate in the digital economy, which is these days nearly everything beyond physical labor. This is true not only in the so called developed nations but in any country.

Not having the ability to use computers is also a class ceiling that does not allow you to advance to management.

Busy, supporting non technical users of OpenOffice

  Tiemen [03.28.07 11:39 AM]

An interesting point indeed.

I agree with the basic premises, but I have to add a point which I think is vital, too.

The problem lies in troubleshooting problems on and learning about systems that are not in English. Due to the history of computing and the Internet a good 80% of all technical information is available in English, and in English only. The remaining 20% is divided over a large number of other languages.

If I get error messages in Dutch, German, Spanish or French I can often figure out what they mean, but would be very limited in my options for searching for this exact error text if I do not know the English equivalent. And searching for exact error text is something I do over and over again when researching errors and bugs.

(The same holds true for translated applications: names for commands and menu entries)

For this reason I think the dictionary files used in these translation efforts should be made publicly available, so multi-linguists can have the opportunity to find their hook into the available stores of knowledge, instead of relying on the trickle of pages that would be available otherwise.

I think that software in one's own language is great, but it can be a limiting factor too - at least until the Internet as a whole catches up.

  Allison Randal [03.29.07 11:20 PM]

Can you write a little more about what is involved with translating software packages as compared to something like the user generated content within this blog. Are their similarities with either tools and/or techniques used to translate either type of content?

A good place to start is at the websites for the software translation projects I mentioned in the post. The techniques are similar to translating any technical material, but the tools are different, largely because the end product is a series of small snippets to be included in a software product, rather than a complete document.

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