Archive for Translation

More on Katrina and Translation

The PeopleFinder is making good progress — it’s pretty inspiring to see what a gang of geeks can do when they set their minds to it. As far as I can tell, there’s been no acrimony at all on the mailing list, IRC channel, or Wiki. (Ethan has a good summary here) Pretty amazing. Compare that to the stories about politicians bickering.

I’m voting Geek Party in 2008.

Anyway, some media stories about translation issues and Katrina have started trickling out, so here’s an update:

  • Spanish Translators Volunteering In Gulf
  • ‘Spanish-speaking organizer’ helps comfort evacuees
  • A mention in Worldandnation: By van, by bus, finally leaving New Orleans:

    On the fourth floor, Cuban-born Arturo Montero, 71, had to be talked into leaving.

    “Sir, I’m begging you to come,” Sgt. Kevin Coakley said. “You will die here. If you don’t die from starvation, you will die from disease.”

    Montero stood at the door, sweating and shirtless, and only began to give in when a Spanish-speaking translator began persuading him that Texas might offer a community where he could live.

    “Bien, bien,” he said.

    The English translation of what he said next was, “It’s difficult because when you’re old you have a certain idea about the way things should be, and it’s hard to change. I love these four walls, and if I have to leave, I’m going to feel sad.”

I’ve been unable to find any mention of that story in the Spanish language media, but I’ve only just started looking. I’m also trying to figure out what the Spanish-language demographics of NOLA and the Gulf Coast generally are. More later.


Katrina, Disasters, and thinking about Translation Banks

On a day like today, I just look for ways for progress to take place, you know? There’s really not any other sensible reaction.

First a disclaimer: I’ll be the first to point out that language issues are a very small part of the Katrina catastrophe. But it’s the part of the picture that I feel like I could contribute to.

The Red Cross is working overtime to provide services to all whose lives have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. In the Miami area—where Spanish is the first language of the majority of the residents, and where a large community of Haitians speak Creole and French—Red Cross workers are available to lend assistance, but many times they encounter an additional problem. “The language barrier is often frustrating for those who are still in the process of learning English, but when their homes are flooded, they have lost their possessions, they are plagued by possibly disease-ridden mosquitoes, and they are experiencing electrical failures (leaving them without air conditioning or the ability to cook, do laundry, or even have a cold drink), the language burden can be particularly exasperating,” said Sergio Alcaraz, Manager of Abracadabra Translations.

I suppose the source article, actually a press release, could be construed as a bit of opportunistic advertising, but whatever. It’s the only content I’ve found on how language issues fit into the whole Katrina misery.

I think the relationship between language services and disasters like this is worth thinking about, and planning for. The situation would be quite similar in a terrorist attack, we have to start thinking about this stuff.

I think these things called “language banks” or “translation banks” are the right step forward for this problem. Descriptions of them are pretty scattered on the web as far as I can tell, but I’ve just started collecting links under the tag tag “languagebank”. Hopefully others will add more.

Related post: I while back I posted about volunteer translation banks, specifically the successful King and Kitsap Counties American Red Cross Language Bank. That’s a model to emulate.

Via this NYT article I learned a bit about the translation situation in New York: “Another site,, has links to hurricane-related brochures and maps in Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian and Spanish.”

New York City? Five languages is a drop in the bucket. Stuff like that should be translated on the web, by the public, and made publicly accessible.

Jonas and I are on the case.

Technorati tag:


Translation watch…

I’m subscribed to some news feeds that send me updates with articles about translation, and here’s the latest one I came across:

Speaking the same language

Police are reaching out to migrant communities, with information in seven languages now available on the force’s national website.

Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Somali and Vietnamese speakers can now access police information online.

The site which was translated by NZ Translation Centre explains how to contact local police and liaison officers as well as giving tips on crime prevention and safety tips.

So I took a look at the site itself:

New Zealand Police Official Website

All said, it’s a pretty nice site — they’ve done a good job localizing it. One interesting bit, however: the character encodings aren’t consistent.

Arabic UTF-8
English ISO-8859–1 (Latin-1)
Hindi UTF-8
Japanese Shift_JIS
Korean EUC-KR
(Simplified) Chinese UTF-8
Somali UTF-8
Vietnamese UTF-8

I suppose there are compelling reasons to use those legacy encodings for Korean and Japanese — but it really doesn’t make sense to encode English as Latin-1, when the same site is using UTF-8 for a language like Somali, whose alphabet is strictly “roman” characters.

It seems to me that they’ll be looking at more headaches down the road as a result of not just going ahead and serving the whole site in a single encoding.


I Bet You Didn’t Make Any Money…

Here’s an update to a random idea I had a while back: Want to Know How to Make Some Money?, where I babbled:

Want to Know How to Make Some Money? Here, I’ll tell you.

News Sentinel | 06/24/2005 | Funding cut for translator service

+ Wireless network + Laptops + Webcams + Subscriptions + Nationwide
(Worldwide?) network of on-call interpreters for lots of languages.

Well, go on.

The idea being that one could start a business capitalizing on the relatively cheap availability of video conferencing tools to sell distributed interpretation services.

Well, I talked to my sister about this idea. She’s a nurse.

The concept is D.O.A., and here’s why: there are strict rules about how the interaction between doctors, patients, and interpreters are to take place. Specifically, the interpreter is not allowed to be a “participant” in the conversation: the interpreter must not speak directly to the patient. The patient looks only at the doctor, never at the interpreter.

That’s a rule.

Which obviates the whole point of the webcam idea. Perhaps the VOIP aspect would still be doable, however.


“The Most Dangerous Civilian Job in Iraq”

An opinion piece from the Japan Times:

The most dangerous civilian job in Iraq.

Being an interpreter, of course.

Interpreting is the most dangerous civilian job among employees of private contractors with the U.S. Labor Department. Interpreters’ deaths accounted for more than 40 percent of the more than 300 death claims filed by all private contractors operating in Iraq.

One interpreter said if he were caught by insurgents his head would be cut off because imams say interpreters are spies. This interpreter has been threatened 15 times, including by a neighbor. One female interpreter was shot execution-style at her home in front of her family.



Yahoo’s Cross-Language Search

Yahoo! Search blog: Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Machine translation was once a rather obscure field — until Babelfish hit the web, I suppose.

Wait, I take that back. There was a period of time back in the 50’s when MT was very much in the public eye — until it became clear that it wasn’t going to be useful (well, not for a few more decades, anyway). Check out this nice history of MT in a nutshell for details.

But I digress.

If you’ve nosed around in academic MT within the last decade or so (or even just poked dilettanteishly at its periphery, as I have), then you were surely inundated by the torrents of boffin-speak.

I find it interesting to watch public-facing search engine companies like Google and Yahoo are being forced to find simple terminology to describe their work in MT . I often find myself mentally, uh, translating from these more verbose descriptions back into the terminology of academia. From the above link, for instance:

So what does this really mean? We apply our Yahoo! Search Translation Technology by taking your query, looking across the entire Web and across languages to assemble the most comprehensive set of relevant results, and then returning that information in your local language.

“Oh, you mean this thing does CLIR…”

People complain a lot about technical terminology, but of course it’s actually useful. It’s just that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, for most people. In any case, it’s great to see this kind of tech seeping out onto the web.


Translation and China

Since I’ve started paying more attention to translation on the web, one country has started to stand out in terms of the sheer amount of translation: China. Deutsche Welle and BBC World Service and VOA News all make massive translation efforts, but it turns out that China’s national Xinhua news service does as well: China to standardize minority language translation system drives home the point:

According the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, More than 60 million people from 55 minority populations within China use more than 80 spoken languages and about 40 written languages.

China has about 300 minority language translation organizationswith part-time and full time staff of more than 100,000.

CRI Online has a list of forty-plus languages. (Looking at some of the content there doesn’t seem too impressive, however–the text on the Burmese page, for instance, is all images.)


Want to Know How to Make Some Money?

Here, I’ll tell you.

News Sentinel | 06/24/2005 | Funding cut for translator service

Asterisk + Wireless network + Laptops + Webcams + Subscriptions + Nationwide (Worldwide?) network of on-call interpreters for lots of languages.

Well, go on.

Update: This probably wouldn’t work: I Bet You Didn’t Make Any Money…


China, Microsoft, and Translation

I’ve been following the story about Microsoft’s latest adventure in China with some interest, but it really wasn’t until I read the latest post at Global Voices that I saw that this story is directly related to a topic I’ve been sort of obsessed with lately, what I think of as “ the wall of translation .”

If you missed the story, basically what’s happened is that Microsoft is cooperating with China’s censorship of MSN Spaces blogs and blocking words like “democracy” and “human rights” in the way some blogging systems block words like “fuck.”

I’m glad mine doesn’t. :)

Anyway, what I mean by the “ wall of translation ” is that this is a story where a dialog could take place on a large scale between Chinese-speaking and English-speaking bloggers (or speakers of any language, really), if there were an effective mechanism for that translation to take place.

But the conversation hits a wall, because the connections and routines that make translation happen aren’t public.

Presumably some day machine translation will solve that problem. But that day isn’t today. And despite what Google says, I don’t think it’s going to come within in the next few years.

People need to think about this problem, a lot, because it must be solved.

I think about it.

A lot.


Machine Translation, Blogging, and Bird Flu

With all the brouhaha over Google’s recent “demo” of their machine translation (MT) system, I’ve become interested in the way that MT is actually used in the blogosphere.

Here’s one interesting example:

Notes from the world of wildlife disease: Over 8000 Bird Flu Deaths in Gangcha County Qinghai China?

Dr. Niman is relying on a machine translation from a Chinese language website where anyone can post. As Crawford Kilian notes, this sounds like Nostradamus.

I think some perspective is necessary.

And so on. What interests me here is the fact that Dr. Niman, whoever he is, is making a medical statement based on machine translation. Pretty surprising.

So what we’re looking at here is someone who apparently has expertise in wildlife diseases criticizing another expert’s discussion of the output of an MT system (SYSTRAN, natch).

But Dr. Niman’s article says that the content has been edited. Here’s what we don’t know:

  • What editing was done
  • How much editing was done
  • Whether the editor has any expertise in Chinese

That said, I imagine that this translation is more or less okay. I don’t doubt that Systran can translate Chinese numerals accurately, or the names of animals (assuming that they’re in the database).

Nonetheless, it’s sort of surprising that this MT’d content is showing up, for instance, as “news” in Google News, without human expertise in the loop. (Blogs have also begun picking up the story.)


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