Languages is still a challenge online

I consider myself, pretentiously, an international citizen. I speak a couple of languages and I’m learning another. That, coupled with travel has made me aware of what I call the “Treachery of English”. Why is technology so inherently English?

In the futuristic TV show Firefly, everyone speaks the only two languages that are left – English and Chinese. It doesn’t seem so much like science fiction anymore.

It seems an odd by-product of the internationalisation of our culture. That language seems to be moving to a Highlander model – there can be only one.

Digital success favours the English. How many great digital products have come from non-English properties? Perhaps only Spotify. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, YouTube, etc. All from English speaking countries (mainly the US). No wonder some countries see the internet itself as Western Imperialism.

How did we get here?

Sometimes the language itself is the problem. I worked for two years on a project to create a Chinese version of a website and was thrown head first into the problems of double byte. After we spent thousands, we would have had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.

URLs are in English. HTML uses Roman characters. The whole internet would have to be reinvented to make it otherwise. To work in the digital space you have to learn English. And sadly, this battle may have been fought and lost. Maybe some future iteration of HMTL may change it but I think not.

But there is a bigger threat. That framework of English washes down river, with major consequences.

New technologies start in English or Roman characters. With luck they expand futher, but usually they don’t. Twitter is reliant on English. iTunes only has one store that displays non Roman characters – Japanese. And most computers can’t disply it correctly because it uses a plugin for Windows. Even the Chinese keyboard on an iPhone, a device of infinite possibilities, is clumsy.

But it isn’t just east versus west.

Everything starts with one language – English. How far down the list is Danish? Czech? Or French Canadian? These are the languages that are dying out.

These smaller languages always get screwed. Movies, even big tentpole ones, don’t get translated into many languages. You might get a French, Chinese or German, but Serbian?

But here is the point of all this:

The digital revolution should destroy these market concerns.

We can reach anyone who can speak any language – online.

I am going to use Harry Potter as a barometer for languages. Those books were published in over 65 languages (including language variations like French Canadian, Cantonese and more). This says to me that there is a) a market, no matter how small and b) a translator probably looking for work.

Point a), the small market, should be big enough to support the zero printing cost of digital. And hopefully the profits from that small market can support the wages of Mr b).

And if that market is there, and it’s attended to and supported – it can grow

Then there are the books that already exist. For some reason, my iTunes/iBook account doesn’t let me buy any French books. Why? Why can’t I get the Serbian digital version of Harry Potter. Or at least the French one?

Like most things, it’s a hangover from the old world. Why would you print up French Harry Potters in the UK, when there is a small audience for it? But now it’s clicks of a button, the changing of territory rights in a table. Yet no one is looking at this. Or worse, someone is still thinking it’s not worth their time.

This might horrify right wingers who believe in one language for one country. But I believe otherwise. How great to be able to access books, movies and music in their original language.

Film, books and music companies are bleeding money. And online sales are healthy, but they are still missing out on a massive financial trick. All because we are still used to promoting and selling one language version in one country. Everything else is a niche market.

If we are all looking for money, surely catering to all language speakers everywhere is the first step.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I want to buy Roald Dahl’s works in French.

It exists. It’s been digitised. iTunes has it on their servers. I have a credit card. You want my money. I want to give it to them.

What’s the hold up?

How do we avoid the vision of the future from Firefly? How do we stop culture from sliding into a single language monotone?

We have to make the internet admit that there is more than just English. And the underused, under appreciated non English market could be a critical key in making digital products more profitable.

It’s a world wide web after all. Lets reflect the whole world.

6 Comments on Wk13: Lost In Translation – The Treachery Of English

  1. I see what you’re saying. But on the other hand, I don’t really see a problem with having one dominant language. Dominant languages help clear communication pathways. Maybe some languages will eventually die out, but communication between cultures will increase exponentially. Languages like Danish or Czech themselves developed so that smaller groups of people with different dialects can talk to each other. Villages make way for nations and now nations make way for a global community. I think I’m OK with that.

  2. Like Christian I also don’t see a problem with a global language – as he said it clears a path for communication – with globalisation there needs to be a way that everyone can communicate with everyone else.

    One of the reasons why English is good for this (and say esperanze isn’t) is that the linguistics and structure of the language allows it to develop vast complex meanings with very little information – it allows the subtlies of expression from other languages to be cannibalised and interpreted easily. English is a very open language in that it can easily accomodate syntax and words from various languages and teh structure of the language allows that – it is this inherent flexibility in its usage (think of English on a grand scale like open source unix) which allows meanings and word construction to be so relatively simple – you can address new concepts and define them very easily with English – that is why it is often the language that forms the basis of scientific discussions – the ease of which new ideas can be conceptualised and defined.

    I can udnerstand where you are coming from and it certainly would be a great cultural loss to the world if the multitude of languages would cease – as an exmaple poetry expressed in romantic languages is something very special and wouldn’t be the same in English – but there are other forces at worl besides the need to retain cultural norms. The need to express new ideas in a way that crosses boundaries, the need to communicate and standardise laws across wide global communities, the need to tranpose data into binary pulses – all benefit from standidisation of communication.

    Unfortunately it is a fact of globalisation – languages developed so differently somewhat due to isolation – but isolation is no longer a factor – as such things mix and mix and mix – and the language that allows the most flexibility across the most uses will end up dominent.

    It is the same for many things – one product of decreased barriers of entry to transportation and cross cultural mingling is a loss of cultural significant information – becuase as two cultures meet one will be dominent – but the result isn’t the dominent one – the result is a new culture rising over time in its place – English is especially good at that itn that it subsumes so much from what it blends with – it is why it is such a strong language – it is able to blend and mix and remain itself – just look at how much the lanugage has changed in the last few decades – and the pace of change will continue to grow.

    I suppose i’ve touched on a number of ideas (and repeated some) but it all comes down to – we are heading, whether we want it to or not, to being one global culture – there will be winners and losers in thise but the idea of global language is not inherently bad – but work should bve done to preserve other languages/cultures – but as time goes by those preservations will be curios only as the world moves on – this applies to language, this applies to forms of govenrmenet, this applies to scientific ideas, this applies to industry – things change – sometimes not always for the better but it will invaribaly change.

  3. I think diversity of culture is good. Unlike Government or business, language has a huge cultural component. I wouldn’t want everyone to eat the same foods.

    And even if we all have to learn English to learn the internet, why can’t the internet support other languages as well.

    It also, right now, stifles creativity coming from over half the world.

    I also don’t like the sneaky introduction of American values as internet values and world values.

    And finally – why does anything need to be lost. Languages don’t need to die anymore. Those French Roald Dahl books need never be deleted. But if they are only available in France, that’s a shame.

  4. I’m not disagreeing with you – and I think you are right on the problems of american cultural imperialism, and questioning why anything needs to be lost.

    However, there are also benefits to language consistency – benefits, without which, we wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the rich cultural diversity – if you had no way of interpreting and communicating ideas with other cultures through a standard communication language then you may nto be aware of all that is good and interesting about them

    I think there are substantial benefits to globalisation and standardisation – but that should always be tempered by each culture taking the time to ensure that it’s own values and languages and idiosyncricies are never lost.

    The benefits of broad cross cultural fertislation of ideas can be facilitated through a standard language with which the world communicates – that way soemone in norway can communicate with someone in peru who can also communicate with someone in japan – all through knowing their home language and english. Rather than them all needing to know 3 or 4 languages to communicate together.

    There is great benefit to that.

    The problems you highlight are real issues – but I think the benefits of a standard global communication standard far out weigh the problems. Risks are there but they are up to the individual cultures to manage (some do that well – the french resistence of american cultural imperailism being an example. some do that less well – the australian embracing of american cultural imperialsim as an example).

    But english as a language is incredibnly flexible allowing it to be used easily as essentially a global translation standard – sort of a rosetta stone for cross cultural pollination

  5. I guess my argument is more – languages are dying. And if we used it better, the internet could stop that.

    One world where everyone can comminicate is awesome.

  6. see we are essentially on the same page – i agree on the languages dying and also the one world communication 🙂

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