Alphabets, smartphones and operating systems: translating minority languages

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At The Language Room we are constantly amazed by the fantastic diversity of languages around the world. It’s a constant learning process as we work on translating minority languages. One recent example of this has been our work in the translation of educational texts into Konkani.

Konkani is an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Indian states of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra. It is the official language in Goa, and one of the official languages of India.[1] According to a census, conducted in 2001 there were 2,420,000 speakers of Konkani in India.[2] “Konkani was originally written with the Brahmi alphabet, and is currently written with a number of other alphabets. In Goa Devanagari is the official script for Konkani, but the Latin alphabet is also popular. In the state of Karnataka, it is written with the Kannada alphabet, in Kerala it is written with the Malayalam alphabet, and Konkani Muslims in Maharashtra use the Arabic alphabet.”[3] We spend a lot of time working together with our client to ensure that we used the right script for their purposes.

In 2014 The Economist published an interesting article about the way in which Mozilla, the company behind the web browser Firefox, is dealing with the specific challenges of translating minority languages for their operating system on their smartphones which are for sale all around the world. There are dozens of languages into which volunteer “localisers” are translating the OS.[4]

“Mozilla has 230 localisation teams, says Jeff Beatty, who co-ordinates some from his office in Utah. Their work takes both time and ingenuity. Firefox for a computer uses about 40,000 words; for the phone OS, 16,000. Translators must express technological terms in languages shaped by livestock, farming and fishing, and choose alternatives for culture-specific words such as “cookie”, “file” and “mouse”.”[5]

“Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20million people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.”[6]

One of the many joys of working in the translation industry is the constant evolution of language and seeing the imaginative ideas, such as the ones mentioned in The Economist article, that translators around the world come up with to tackle the linguistic challanges in translating minority languages.

The Economist Article –