Tear­ing down Ba­bel

To­wards com­put­ing in all South Africa’s lan­guages

Finweek English Edition - - Techtrends - SIMON DINGLE

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

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