Tearing down Babel
Towards computing in all South Africa’s languages
THOSE OF US lucky enough to claim English as a first or strong second language take the ease with which we use computers for granted. Having largely been pioneered in the United States, computers were designed for English-language speakers first and foremost. In South Africa – where the majority of our 11 languages have been “official” for less than two decades – the situation is even more challenging than in countries such as China, which localised things a long time ago.
Dwayne Bailey is the man behind an initiative aimed at tackling the problem by translating computer interfaces into SA’s 11 official languages. Translate.org. za facilitates the translation of open source software and then uses the translated information to develop everything from business-specific language solutions and keyboards designed for African languages to computer fonts and spell-checkers.
Bailey’s work has also transcended SA’s borders. So if you’re wondering what the Xhosa word for “web browser” is, need to use Firefox in Swahili or you’re looking for a Venda spell-checker, Bailey can help. The reason his business usually focuses on open source software is because it’s licensed in such a way that allows for the language of its interface to be changed easily. The opposite of open source software is proprietary software, where the company that develops it forbids you to change it.
An example of open source software is Open Office, which is similar to Microsoft Office, which is proprietary. When it comes to operating systems – where the foundational language settings of a computer are implemented – Windows is proprietary, while Ubuntu Linux, for example, is open source.
Since open source is often developed by a community of people, it’s easy to get something such as another language built into the system, whereas getting it into proprietary software requires the company that develops the software to do that. “So if you look at the South African keyboard we’ve developed it’s been available for ages. But in Windows you have to download it and specifically install it, whereas it’s been included for ages with Ubuntu,” says Bailey.
He says in Ubuntu all you have to do is tell the operating system you use a South African keyboard when installing the operating system and you’re done.
It seems the question of language is something often overlooked by proprietary software vendors – and in the case of keyboards it’s vital for some non-English speakers. “The fact you don’t want to use a computer in English doesn’t mean you don’t want to write an email in Venda, or contribute to Wikipedia, or use Twitter,” he says.
Translate.org.za relies on volunteers to do most of its translation work and Bailey says it’s more specialised than often realised. “Most people think they can write because they have the know-how, but good writers have a special skill. It’s the same with translating. Just because someone speaks English and the language they’re translating it into very well doesn’t mean they’re good translators,” he says.
His company is also increasingly working with businesses that need computer translations or have special needs. He’s also begun engaging with proprietary software companies that need help offering their products in other languages.
Internationally, the appreciation for language barriers in computing is growing. Just last week the first non-Latin character domain names went live, paving the way for website addresses to be created in Arabic and Chinese, whereas before they had to be in English. More than 20 countries have already requested approval for language-localised domains from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in the US, which controls Internet names.
DWAYNE BAILEY Transcending borders