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September 26, 2014 3:19 AM   Subscribe

Translating technological terms throws up some peculiar challenges
Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m 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”.
posted by infini (23 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
“cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food.

I would like to use your Firefox.
posted by chavenet at 3:34 AM on September 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


About nine months ago I set my tablet to be in french to help with general comprehension. It's fun seeing little linguistic differences, none of them are as good as the ones in the article.

I am interested by volunteer translators, surely mozilla could afford to pay them something?
posted by Braeburn at 4:17 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Now that is how to do translation properly: recognize that those terms are not literal descriptions in English, and you're free to invent the same sort of metaphorical, linguistically creative images in Fulah or Chichewa.

R. S. Thomas, in Cymru or Wales?, writes about the traditional pastime of "competitive meetings on winter evenings to discover Welsh ways of saying some of these [modern English] things," in particular "what D. Tecwyn Lloyd told me was the way some old woman in Hiraethog solved the problem of what to call the evacuees as they began to arrive in Welsh Wales during the last war. When people were tying themselves in knots over words like 'ffoaduriaid' and so on this old dear, after the pattern of what they had called cade lambs, simply and naturally referred to the new arrivals as 'plant cadw' [cade children]. This is an example of how the genius of a language can avoid a whole multitude of nonsense."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:20 AM on September 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


"competitive meetings on winter evenings to discover Welsh ways of saying some of these [modern English] things,"

I know this is unfair to the Welsh, but I still giggle at ironing board being translated as 'Bord smwddio' (pr: bord smoothio). And it's always cool to cross the border and see the Tacsis and Ambiwlans.
posted by sobarel at 5:06 AM on September 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


I miss Jonathan Riddell's Mozilla in Scots (archive link). Trash will always be midden to me.
posted by scruss at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


competitive meetings on winter evenings to discover Welsh ways of saying some of these [modern English] things

Based on my time in Wales (which I should note I loved), I could easily imagine competitive evenings pronouncing Welsh place names, too. I have never done more damage to a language than I did there just asking directions, and people were unbelievably nice and patient about it.

The article was interesting; my only complaint was that it is so short -- it is such a rich subject that it deserves a much longer and deeper exploration. I've had a number of conversations recently with people from southern Mexico for whom Spanish is a second or third language and as the article notes the world is full of people living in countries where the official language is not what they use everyday; having web browsers or operating systems available in their primary language seems like both a kindness and eventually a good business move.

Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers in the Sahel, who do not have smartphones. But when such people eventually get online, they will benefit more if they can do so in their own tongues.

Smartphones are only going to get cheaper and more ubiquitous, and tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people who may never have reliable electricity or a powerful computer will be able to be online sooner or later.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:34 AM on September 26, 2014


I would like to see these terms translated into Tamarian.
(Firefox apparently already sort of speaks Klingon)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:48 AM on September 26, 2014


This is probably apocryphal, but I've heard of 'systems administrator' being translated as 'machine herder' in Mongolian.
posted by kersplunk at 5:48 AM on September 26, 2014 [22 favorites]


Given the crumbs in my keyboard, someone has already taught my machine to speak Fulah. This is a great initiative though.
posted by arcticseal at 5:52 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just this guy, y'know: "I would like to see these terms translated into Tamarian."

This is a volunteer-driven effort. Make it so.
posted by adamrice at 7:16 AM on September 26, 2014


Oh how I love philology porn.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:14 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm learning Yoruba now. What happens in reality is that these terms are invented and then very rarely used. Yoruba speakers would just say "browser," "cookie," etc., perhaps slightly Yoruba-fied to end with a vowel. English just keeps making inroads into the language. "Television" is "ero amohun maworan" (something like "machine that shows pictures," I think) but everyone just says "television." It's good or bad, depending on your point of view.
posted by eugenen at 8:40 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


*ponders the blue screen of death*

Cow gets stuck in thorn bush?

Deer stuck in light of your fire?

Rabbit stares at flying eagle?
posted by infini at 9:04 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Seems like a neat exercise in translation, but in reality people seem to use loanwords pretty easily. If your language doesn't have a term for "aspect ratio" ... well, actually it does, it's "aspect ratio."

Incorporating loan words into your language seems less likely to be confusing than overloading existing terms with new meaning, since different translators might all pick different existing terms to overload. If you stick with the loanword you at least have some popular basis for the choice.

I am reminded of the efforts of the French Government back in the late 90s to come up with French words for various Internet-related stuff that absolutely, positively weren't just the same English words spoken with a French accent. It didn't go well, outside of official government publications, as far as I've ever seen.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:05 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


I always quite liked "courriel" for e-mail, but yeah, the Académie Française was and is on a hiding to nothing with their prescriptivism.
posted by sobarel at 9:31 AM on September 26, 2014


This is a volunteer-driven effort. Make it so.

Fine, I'll get started on it this weekend.
I couldn't see the link in the article anywhere.
Here is the link to contribute to it (and proper languages of course)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:35 AM on September 26, 2014


This is fascinating stuff! Thanks for posting, infini.

Kadin2048, I get what you are saying with your example, but surely it isn't just not having the term "aspect ratio" but also a frame of reference which puts those words in context which makes these translation efforts so difficult, and so vital to reaching a shared understanding.

In ancient times (you know, pre-Internet),if I had lived all my life in a desert, and you were a nomad who'd wandered the globe, when trying to express to me the wonders of the wide, wide world, you couldn't just marvel over vast oceans teeming with fish and expect me to understand a word you were saying without first explaining what the hell an ocean was, for example. So you'd have to liken that to something I might be familiar with-- an oasis, perhaps (yes, I know this is simplistic and grossly inaccurate but just go along with me a moment). You could then get into the size of it and the salt water aspect, all the while continuing to use the word ocean, but I would mentally be replacing that word with Vast oasis filed with sweaty water stretching as far as my eyes can see, or some such.

Eventually, curious, I might travel the world myself, and I would see an ocean, and use the same word that you have used, and teach others as you taught me, using different embellishments to explain the concept. Through this process, eventually ocean would enter my peoples' vocabulary. But getting there is a process, right?

[Don't even ask me how to explain fish to someone who's never seen one. Scales, I could get there through comparing to the look of a snake's skin, I think, but jeez, gills would be tough!]
posted by misha at 10:25 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


misha, thanks for writing my comment out for me dear. saves the wrist work.

to clarify, just in case the above was too cryptic,

but surely it isn't just not having the term "aspect ratio" but also a frame of reference which puts those words in context which makes these translation efforts so difficult, and so vital to reaching a shared understanding.

this exactly. and I have anecdata from user research in the field. its all about contextual knowledge that we don't even realize, given our immersion in our own operating environment. i.e. what does a fish know about water?
posted by infini at 10:37 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


My favorite bit of technical jargon translation trivia comes from Icelandic, where the word for computer is tölva, literally "number prophet."
posted by Eldritch at 11:49 AM on September 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


Suba – a new mobile app that lets everyone at events see and share photos together in one central photo stream.

The name Suba reflects the “flow” of the app’s novel photo viewing experience. It’s a riff on the the Akan word “nsuba,” which means “stream.”


“We came up with the concept for Suba after attending a friend’s wedding. Everyone was taking pictures, and we realized that we’d never have a chance to see them,” says Nelson Klutse, CEO of Suba.
I suspect we're going to see more of this happening
posted by infini at 4:30 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


The names in other languages section of Wikipedia's article about the @ sign is entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:24 AM on September 27, 2014


Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers in the Sahel

There's something about this sentence that seems to have a kind of perceptual confusion, in the same way the second commenter in The Economist made an obtuse comment about lack of English leading to the unfortunate inaccessibility of such 'culture' as Game of Thrones. Poor illiterate farmers living an almost mythical life, with traditional satisfactions, traversing a continent casually in the day-to-day, as likely to be armed with a sword as with an AK47, counting their wealth in cattle and gold, sprinkling their most mundane greetings with poetry. And they have cell phones already. The spread of cell phone towers has been phenomenal in West Africa, whereas I think there's just the one sub-Atlantic cable connecting West Africa to the internet. Maybe there are two by now? Dunno. Whatever, country people, as opposed to middle class townies, may not have smartphones; but the innovation both with smartphones and ordinary mobiles is going to be homegrown, serving a very lively and diverse market. As infini mentions above.
posted by glasseyes at 2:15 PM on September 27, 2014


Internet cables to West Africa
posted by infini at 12:19 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


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