How Translation Is Changing the World

The worldwide web must also be wordwise. Slowly but surely, we're getting there.
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In today's interconnected world, is language really still a barrier? The answer is yes, but not for long.

The world's population is projected to reach seven billion by the end of 2011. Nearly two billion of these individuals have internet access. The majority of online users (80 percent) speak just ten languages, but there are 6,912 known living human languages. Only 2,261 have a writing system. So, video and audio communication are essential to enable people from all parts of the world to communicate in real time.

The printing press, radio, and television were each important milestones in expanding the scope of global communication. But the internet gives people access to information in all three of the forms they prefer (audio, video, and text), making it the only communication platform capable of reaching people in all of the languages they speak. Before the internet, conquering Babel was simply a dream -- now, it's an attainable goal.

The internet also may help slow down language loss. Speakers of less common languages are often marginalized from the larger societies their communities inhabit. As a result, they assimilate and learn the language of a dominant class or social group. Parents often encourage their children to embrace society's most dominant language, viewing it as a key that will unlock important economic and social benefits that would otherwise be unattainable. As a result, younger generations abandon their mother tongues, often viewing them as inferior.

But programs like the National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project -- conducted in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages -- seek to preserve endangered languages by recording them and sharing them with the world through their own YouTube channel. Thanks to this project, people across the globe can hear two young men rap in Hruso (also called Aka or Angka). Hruso is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by 4,000 people in Arunachal Pradesh, India. A video that shows a gentleman counting in Foi (also called Foe or Mubi), makes it clear why video content is essential. Viewers hear him pronounce the numbers in his language, which is spoken by 2,800 people in Papua New Guinea, but they can also see how he uses his body to count. Just imagine how a miserably a textbook would fail to convey the same information.

Companies like Microsoft and Google have also been working to increase the number of languages in which their customers can receive and share information. As Carla Hurd, who oversees Microsoft's Local Language Program, points out, "There are languages we've encountered where the terms we need to translate simply don't exist, so we end up working with the local communities on terminology development. This ensures that they tell us how they'd like to see the terms translated -- not vice versa." Hurd's program enables speakers of 59 different languages -- including Assamese (India), Basque (Spain), Igbo (Nigeria), and Inuktitut (Canada) -- to use Microsoft's products.

No single organization in the world is doing as much to demolish the Tower of Babel as Google. The company's flagship product, Google Search, is available today in 136 languages. Google Translate, the company's automatic translation tool, enables users to instantly translate content between 57 different languages. While there's a long way to go to reach all 6,912 languages, the company has made no secret of its goal to remove the language barrier. It operates a vast online translation community, using volunteer translators who want to see more information available in their native tongues.

The scope of Google's language-related work is expansive, but it also engages in more focused, timely projects. For example, the company recently engaged more than 1,800 multilingual professionals to convert more than half a million words of online health-related text into Arabic, Hindi, and Swahili through a pilot project called Google Health Speaks. Jennifer Haroon, who oversees the project, explains, "To demonstrate our commitment to increasing health information online in local languages, we paid professional translators to translate and review a portion of the articles."

Why is translation so important? Information is power, but the amount of information that is currently inaccessible to the world population is mind-boggling. Much like scientists who discover more each day about the mysteries of the human brain, translation enables us to tap into more of our collective repository of human knowledge.

Our thirst for information will never be fully quenched unless we can access all of the information that we might want to obtain -- no matter which language(s) we happen to speak, no matter who created the content, and no matter the form in which it's available. Until the world's content is accessible to all, the internet is not truly global.

The worldwide web must also be wordwise. Slowly but surely, we're getting there.

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