Students translate webmail into local language

Published in Tectonic

isiXhosa speakers have translated the interface for Rhodes University’s Horde email system in a 48-hour Translate@thon. The translated software is the first application of its kind that will allow the institute’s students and staff to access email in their mother tongue.

About 60 isiXhosa speakers and IT specialists huddled around computer screens and dictionaries in an attempt to translate the 10 000 words that make up the Rhodes email system on Friday afternoon.

The marathon event was organised by the Telkom Centre of Excellence in Distributed Multimedia, SANTED (South African-Norway Tertiary Education Development) and non-profit translation project and aimed to make indigenous African languages visible on the Rhodes campus.

“People assume that when you go to university, you are fully competent in English,” said SANTED co-ordinator Pamela Maseko. SANTED has been involved in a number of projects to help Rhodes staff and students who are not first-language English speakers. The translation of the Rhodes webmail system forms part of the terminology development project that has been working closely with the Rhodes Computer Science department.

Maseko says that it is vital to look at the lack of African language translations in technology and computer programs. “Language is linked to people’s identity and to people’s culture,” says Maseko. She says that by not being exposed to one’s own language in writing or computer technology, one begins to undermine a big part of one’s identity.

Rhodes first year student, Gcobani Jombile says that she has been “humbled” by the translation experience. “I have never really put that much value in my language,” she says.

Maseko described the translat@thon as the “ilima” of translation, meaning that a group of people have come together for a common goal – to protect African languages from the dangers of technology. director, Dwayne Bailey, said the danger of not translating computer programs into African languages is that people start to see their own languages as inferior to others.

Bailey said the challenge of software companies is to make computer programs work in the culture and language of the user and to make software that is able to be translated into different languages.

In 2004, successfully translated into Zulu, Northern Sotho and Afrikaans and by 2005 they had translated it into all 11 official languages.

Microsoft is currently working on a software tool to help computer program be translated into six African languages, including Zulu, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Setswana, Swahili and Sepedi.

SANTED ICT co-ordinator, Lorenzo Dalvit, says that the Rhodes Translat@thon is just the beginning. If the model works, they will translate the webmail system into the other official South African languages.

Dalvit says that once the words have been translated, they will go through a quality check to make sure that the translated words are of good quality before they are put onto the webmail system. He says that they want the system working as soon as possible, but that they need to make sure that it is as good as the English system so that people will be encouraged to use it. won the African ICT Achiever award for bridging the digital divide in Africa in 2006.

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