Monday, March 30, 2009

Competition as fierce as for power-sharing and representation in a national government

It is quite amazing what volunteers can achieve when it comes to national pride.

Pejoratively known as the Galla by the rest of Ethiopia, the Oromo form around 47% of the Ethiopian population. They have a history marred with conflict and attempts of self-determination. Many of them ended up as refugees throughout the world, due to their political activism.

Now Google has given them a reason to show some national pride.

On the Oromo forum Gaada, Qeerransoo Biyyaa writes about the translation of main Google pages into their language Afaan Oromoo. The whole project was done by volunteers.

"The pleasure of seeing one’s language go global has been what, I think, made the voluntary translation a huge success for Google. Often, poor people have devoted hours and years of translation for Google, without compensation. Imagine marathon human translators in Africa, making sacrifices for Google and themselves. Within each country, I have witnessed groups competing to make their own languages go global and technological on Google.

I was part of a Google Translation Group known as the Gumii-Dagaagina Afaan Oromoo, established in the US to translate Google products into Afaan Oromoo or Oromo, the language spoken by nearly 50% the Ethiopian population. It struck me to see how the political competition among nationalities in Ethiopia also translated itself into competition to be the first to make one’s language part of the giant search engine on earth. This feels like technological nationalism.

The Afaan Oromoo group started translating Google products in the year 2005. The team was composed of about 40 people. High-profile college and high school students, linguists, and technology geeks were involved. Nevertheless, the high dropout rate of volunteers was a major problem down the line. Qeerransoo Biyyaa persevered to complete two important products 100%, Google Main Search Site and Main Search Help Pages — both important for accessing Google Interface.

The translation was a huge struggle as a person needs to integrate concepts from technology, language and culture simultaneously. It was sometimes hard to find equivalent technological terms in Oromo or other language from Ethiopia. This is simply because technological terms are as foreign as the technologies themselves to Ethiopia.

Among the Horn of African languages, the competition among languages is as fierce as the competition for power-sharing and representation in a national government.
One hopes that the availability of Google in African languages will play a certain role in improving the unfair New World Information Order, where information flows predominantly from the global NORTH to SOUTH. When Google fully develops support for languages like Afaan Oromoo, Amharic, Tigrigna and Somali etc., information may gradually start to flow in both directions, from South to North and vice versa. If that happens, it can be dubbed ‘the Grand Information Justice’. Naively speaking, information justice can lead to better understanding among world’s nations, peoples, cultures and languages. It can foster more co-operation and friendship among peoples, nations, and ethnic groups."

Good on you, folks!

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