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Worldwide Lexicon: matching up technologies and culture to end the language barrier

I’ve reported before on the

Worldwide Lexicon
the brainchild of my friend Brian McConnell.
His most recent breakthrough, which I

blogged about in August
was an impressive

Firefox plugin

that exploits both human and machine translations on the Web to
provide pages you can read in your primary language.

As attractive as the Firefox plug-in can be, it’s only the first stage
in four that Brian plans toward a computing environment that
encourages and leverages human translation. On the browser side, the
next logical project is to reproduce the Firefox experience for IE
users. Ultimately, he hopes the functionality becomes a standard part of every
browser. Even better, he’s working on a way to include the functionality
on the server side so that it’s browser-independent (although that
technology would require support in the server software, of course).

And there’s even more to come. He lays out his vision in an essay
boldly titled

The End Of The Language Barrier
The bottom of the article points to an equally important

statement written for the World Economic Forum

by Ethan Zuckerman,
founder of the

Global Voices

site that extends the reach of weblogs to people in many countries who
previously lacked access to such forums.

Ethan’s essay appealed to me because he describes a culture of helping
each other to understand the world by voluntarily contributing
translations to important content on the Web. Brian’s essay lays out
in detail some tools that would make it easy to write and disseminate
such translations. Both aspects are important in a world that (to
recycle a cliché) is increasingly interconnected, and where
ordinary people without large budgets are generating personal
testimonies at an enormous rate.

Brian is also

requesting donations

for Worldwide Lexicon, which is all open source.
He says, “We are also looking for corporate donors to fund
commissioned projects, such as a Drupal or WordPress module. One of
our main priorities now is to build connectors and interfaces for most
of the widely used web servers, CMS platforms, etc. so that adding WWL
to a system will become a checkbox option in most cases.”

Volunteer translation still faces the problems familiar to the field
of translation. The WWL plugin has a rating facility, so as more
people use it, high-quality translations will hopefully stand out. And
of course, if something of global interest happens in Thailand or
Ethiopia, it’s unlikely that volunteers can be found to provide
translations from those languages to every other language represented
on the Web, so we’ll have to settle for a certain amount of relaying
through a common language such as English.

Even though I’m lucky to have libraries full of information about
other cultures available, I’m looking forward to getting more

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Comments: 5

  1. maybe this will help to end Google’s inadvertent cultural imperialism. As an English language speaker in the UK, google *never* gives me results from outside the UK and USA. That can’t be right.

  2. Instead of translating the vast (and increasing) amount of information available in the world to a lot of different languages, I wish we could just establish English as a common language around the globe.

    I am Norwegian myself, and learning English as a secondary language is mandatory in Norway. I believe the simplest and most cost-effective solution would be to establish a two-language standard.

    English could be for standard information and knowledge, and then we could have one (or several, if wanted) official language in addition per country to maintain historical documents and use for art (poetry, fiction, music lyrics) etc.

    As the amount of worldwide information and communication is rapidly increasing, the cost (and global waste) of translating everything into several languages is also increasing.

    At this moment, the Wikipedia.com Encyclopedia has 3,037,000 articles in English, and 229,119 articles in Norwegian….

  3. Very interesting comments. Julian, you can view the world’s web sites by changing the language in Google on the Advanced Search page; I do that all the time to see what people are saying about events in other countries. You may have a point if you think there are lots of interesting English-language pages in India, South Africa, Australia, or even non-English speaking countries and you’re missing them. I’m sure you could target them by specifying a ccTLD as a domain name, but I agree that’s a work-around.

    Atle, are you engaging in the Northern European habit of dry satire? Your suggestion is the easiest way for us to communicate, and we’re pretty far along that path. But ask the Irish how easy it is to maintain a native language when everybody has to learn English.

  4. Please do not overestimate the position of English.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential. As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto 🙂

    Your readers may be interested in seeing http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of the global language,Esperanto, can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  5. After reading Julian’s comment and then the essay, it is interesting to think about the search engine component of this. Brian McConnell seems to be well on the way with a complete vision for handling things at the end point with WWL, but it seems that search providers with need to change some of their default behaviors to take full advantage of it.