Students to make technology Xhosa-literate

Published on Tectonic

Students from Rhodes University will gather this weekend to translate the campus online email system into Xhosa.

The “Translate@thon”, a one-day translation drive, is an initiative of South African localisation organisation

Students will be translating the open source Horde web-based email application. recently won the ICT Achievers Award for bridging the digital divide for their work in translating computer software into South African languages. Their work resulted in the first office suite, email and web browser available in Xhosa.

Dwayne Bailey, director of, says that “considering that about 80 percent of South Africa’s population is not English-literate, this work is important to allow everyone access to technology”.

“The language has not failed, it is technology that has failed Xhosa. We hope to help technology become Xhosa-literate.”

The Translate@thon concept was pioneered by and similar events have been run in Cape Town and Durban. This difference this time around, says Bailey, is that the students will be translating the webmail system which they use every day.

Bailey says that “while the participants might not break into a sweat, their minds will be exhausted at the end of the day. The day will be packed with instruction, translation sprints, prizes and camaraderie.”

Students can translate an estimated 200 to 500 words during the day. If the organisers can attract between 40 and 80 participants they will be able to fully translate the application.

To ensure quality and consistency the team has developed a glossary of terminology and are also using previous translations from’s work to create a translation memory. Both of these will prompt translators and guide them towards better translations that have been created and reviewed by professional translators, says Bailey.

Being open source means that other users of the Horde email application will soon also be able to use the Xhosa version which will be shared with the community.

One future user, says Bailey, could be the South African Government with their recent commitment to migrate to open source software. Various pilots within government have looked at Horde to deliver web based email, he says.

The SANTED multilingualism programme within the Rhodes School of languages, in collaboration with the Telkom Centre of Excellence and are organising the Translate@thon at Rhodes University.

The South African-Norway Tertiary Education Development (SANTED) programme is a joint initiative between the Norwegian government and the SA Department of Education. SANTED is supporting the Rhodes’ African Language Studies Section within the School of Languages in the promotion of multilingualism and implementation of the University’s language policy.

The Telkom Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Distributed Multimedia is a Research Unit attached to the Department of Computer Science. Centres from both Rhodes and Fort Hare will be assisting on the day.

Dr Lorenzo Dalvit, CoE researcher in ICT education and multilingualism, says: “Although the CoEs main focus is telecommunication we understand the need to make ICT available in local languages.”

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