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Translation software opens up doors

Gretchen Wilson Jan 14, 2009

Translation software opens up doors

Gretchen Wilson Jan 14, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: Try though they might, Chinese censors can’t shut off the Internet entirely. The number of Chinese online jumped more than 40 percent last year. That means there are now almost as many people surfing the Web there as there are that live in the United States — almost 300 million people. That amounts to about 22 percent of the total Chinese population.

Not every culture is so connected though. Best estimates are that only 5 percent or so of Africans used the Internet last year. The growing digital divide in the developing world has been created by a shortage of computers, high speed access and electricity.

And as Gretchen Wilson reports — language.

GRETCHEN WILSON: Joyce Biyela has sold brooms, floor mats and baskets at this market for more than 30 years. Every night she tracks her sales and inventory in a dog-eared notebook. Her daughter says a computer would boost productivity and take Biyela’s small business to the next level.

NGOBESE BIYELA: Because she will do balancing, loss, profit — do everything in computer, not manually.

But Biyela’s never used a computer.

JOYCE BIYELA [TRANSLATION]: I speak Zulu! So I don’t know how computers work!

That’s because PCs here use English-language versions of Microsoft Windows and Office. It’s a huge barrier.

LAUREN WOODMAN: In order for technology to really be beneficial to a community, it has to be well utilized.

Lauren Woodman is head of Microsoft’s public sector programs. She says the company’s products are usually offered in dozens of languages like Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.

WOODMAN: But there are lots and lots of other languages out there that have much smaller populations, or may not be as commercially accessible, but still do serve large communities.

So Microsoft offers free downloads of what they call “interface packs” in 37 additional languages. They’re like shells that sit on top of an existing version of Windows or Office. So instead of clicking “File” and seeing a menu with the words “new,” “open” and “save,” a Zulu speaker clicks:

Sipho MKHIZE: Ifayela.

And sees . . .

MKHIZE: Entsha, Vula, Londoloza . . .

This is a computer lab in KwaDukuza. A facilitator leads a dozen Zulu speakers through the basics.

Dee Gumede is a high school teacher. Like many Zulu speakers, he speaks English as a second language. Up until now he found computers kind of intimidating.

DEE GUMEDE: Many people are still, like, scared to go and learn computers.

But since this Zulu-language technology was put in place, this computer lab has seen its membership skyrocket by more than 30 percent.

Microsoft provides its products in local languages, in part, as a survival strategy. After all, it faces competition from other technologies that use indigenous languages — cell phones, open-source operating systems, and Internet-based technologies.

Sipho Mkhize is studying small business management and uses the Internet to look for jobs. He points to a button on Google’s Zulu-language search engine.

MKHIZE: Ngizizwa Nginehlanhla is “I’m feeling lucky.”

Some indigenous groups don’t feel lucky at all to have their language used this way. In fact, some are fighting it. The Mapuche in Chile accused Microsoft of intellectual piracy when it developed Windows in their language. But Mkhize, the business student, has a different view.

MKHIZE: It’s kind of like a step forward, and it’s a good thing.

Mkhize says technology that speaks his language is exactly what he needs to navigate in the modern era.

In KwaDukuza, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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