The plight of the bilingual blogger…

A confession: like many bloggers, I go through stretches where I compulsively check my “status” – the number of other bloggers linking to this blog and my resulting position on the “A-List” (or in my case, C- or D-List) of bloggers. Blogpulse, my ego-inflating (or deflating) site of choice, sees 40-odd links to this blog in the past month and tells me that there are at least 1600 bloggers more popular than I am this month…

(Which, honestly, is pretty cool. Thank you all for reading and for linking.)

Loïc LeMeur, entrepreneur, author and blogger, has an honest – and slightly cranky – post on his blog, noting that the various status-ranking tools available to bloggers (Technorati and Feedster are his specific targets) do a poor job of ranking bilingual bloggers like him. Loïc’s French-language blog is one of the most popular French language blogs on the web, and his English blog is quite well read in its own right.

Loic notes that Technorati et. al., rank the two blogs separately, rather than considering them as a single work. Blogpulse does likewise, ranking his French blog 469th, with 101 links in the past month, and his English blog 862nd, with 64 links. For the fun of it, I took blogpulse citation and ranking data for a dozen blogs, calculated an equation that relates citation numbers to rank (for those who care about the geekery, log(citations) and log(rank) covary with R^2=0.98 for this very small data set) and calculated the rank of Loïc’s joint blogs – 221st with 165 links, putting him firmly within most definitions of an A-list.

Whether Loïc is an A-list blogger or two B-list bloggers isn’t generally the sort of question I’m interested in, but the rest of his post raises some interesting questions for bridgebloggers as a whole. Loïc notes that there are a number of possible strategies a bilingual blogger can implement to engage in a global conversation:

– Write only in English, since English has become a lingua franca for the blogosphere, and alienate your local readers.

– Write only in your native language, though comment on blogs in English and other languages, sometimes translating them for your readers. Accept that this means your input into global conversations will be limited.

– Translate every post so that it appears in English and your local language. While this maximizes readership and inclusion in the conversation, it’s an enormous effort.

– Maintain different weblogs in English and your local language. Occasionally translate between the two, but cover some topics in one and others in the other.

While I wish every bilingual blogger had the time, energy and inclination to pursue the third strategy, I find many of the bloggers I’m most interested in follow the fourth strategy, writing on different topics in English and another language. Knowing that this is what Loïc does, I subscribe to both his English and French feeds – while I don’t read French, I don’t read it well enough that I can usually tell if he’s writing about a topic of interest to me, in which case I’ll plug the entry into Babelfish (or, increasingly, into the excellent translation widget built into Tiger…)

This isn’t a worksable strategy for reading my friend Ndesanjo, though – tragically, automated Kiswahili to English translation lags way behind machine translation between romance languages. And since my knowledge of Kiswahili starts and ends at “Jambo!”, I’d have a hard time deciding which posts on Jikomboe to follow… On the other hand, I would hate for Ndesanjo to stop blogging in Kiswahili and focus on his English blog, as I think his primary blog sends two critical messages: that there are Swahili speakers on the web and that people more comfortable writing in Swahili than in English should be able to share their opinions and views in the same ways that English speakers do.

Ndesanjo’s a great example of one of the challenges Loïc’s post raises: if there’s a Kiswahili blogger A-list, Ndesanjo is it. When I met Tanzanian blogger Idya Nkya in Cape Town a few weeks back, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that Inya and Ndesanjo are old friends. Ndesanjo appears to be single-handedly dragging his countrymen onto the web one at a time, recently convincing prominent Tanzanian opposition candidates that they needed blogs. (Okay, so they haven’t posted on them yet, but it’s just a matter of time… :-)

What would a list like Technorati’s Top 100 or Blogpulse’s Top 40 look like if there were separate lists for different languages? If we featured top French, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Swahili blogs, would people be driven to find out what top bloggers in other languages were talking about? Will Ndesanjo become the blog celebrity Hoder (who blogs in English and Persian) has become as the Swahili blogosphere blossoms? Or will we ignore the reminder that there are other vibrant conversations taking place on the web and be content to know only about the conversations that are easy for us to read?

Obviously, this is a problem we’re trying to address at Global Voices. Having folks like Haitham Sabbah on board – who can translate, both linguistically and culturally, from the Arab blogosphere to the English-speaking one – is letting us open conversations that would be otherwise closed to part of the world. And as we’re starting to look for funding to expand our coverage and content, Rebecca and I are interested in bringing dedicated translators on board to help bridge more of these conversations.

But I worry that there’s still a sense that the English-language blogosphere is “the big time” and that blogs not in English (at least in part) aren’t part of the global conversation in the same way that English language blogs are. As the next billion Internet users – who will speak Chinese, Portuguese, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and Xhosa better than they speak English – come online, this attitude is likely to limit the horizons of people who look to the web for a bigger picture.

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12 Responses to The plight of the bilingual blogger…

  1. Boris says:

    “English has become a lingua franca for the blogosphere”
    I am flat out shocked to hear you say this Ethan. The truth is more along the lines of “english is the lingua franca of the english blogosphere, just as french is the lingua franca of the french blogosphère, und so weiter…”

    I am very interested in seeing more information about weblog technology developments in various languages/cultures/countries, as one barometer of the health of the “local” blogospheres. The french blogosphere has at least as many weblog systems as the english, if not more! Loïc himself did a good thing by starting a wiki page trying to document them across europe.

    Sure the conversation we, as predominantly english reading readers, are privy to is english. But what happens when 200 million chinese bloggers appear on the scene? When their weblog services market severly outweighs and outstrips the U.S.’s? When they start defining their own technologies and ways of doing things, idiosynchratically to their language and culture…

    It’s of course all a very sticky topic. Do we standardize on a language? What if we aren’t the ones to decide. Or we are now, but ten years from now, oops we better learn mandarin, or spanish… probably both! Language is a living organism, one governed by true emergent democracy, the likes of which we could only dream of institutionalizing, because doing so kills it.

    Losing my point… ;)

    As far as GVO is concerned, we face a difficult decision and an equally difficult technical challenge: do we offer multiple langauge GVOs? The first place to look is GVO’s mandate and focus. Do we target only the english speaking world, or the world? If the latter, then we very well will need to setup a system to support that. We’ve already heard whispers of a desire for that in the MailingList. I’m not talking baout translation, just multi-facetization. “Show me spanish language entries about Cuba and/or Venezuela from the last 7 days.”
    I just hope we don’t try to graft it onto the current system… ;)

  2. Ethan says:

    “English has become a lingua franca for the blogosphere.” I am flat out shocked to hear you say this Ethan.

    I didn’t say it, Boris. Loïc did. I was attempting to quote him, though I was on an airplane an didn’t have the post in front of me. Actually, he’s even geekier about it:

    “That’s life, even though english is the TCP/IP of language obviously, and I agree.”

    I think the rest of my post agrees with you – I don’t want the world to be one where English is the sole language of the blogosphere – my whole point of this post was to look at ways be can prevent this from happening…

  3. There is an option 5, which is to post in both languages on one blog. Some Quebecois bloggers do this, as does at least one Swedish blogger who I read. (Johan Norberg )

  4. There is an option 5, which is to post in both languages on one blog. (Adam Shostack, 3)

    I agree. I try to post in 3 languages in one blog, but often posts are only in one language, because it takes time to translate. I ended up making a post called Automated translation: Babelfish 101. But Babelfish only covers a few languages.

    Fighting the knowledge and information divide in the digital age should go through the development of translating programs for minority languages. Where it only to enable speakers of these languages to translate keywords and a very brief summary of their posts.

    But as with rare disease, the market is all too often considered as not big enough for R & D of tools for linguistic minorities. However, in Switzerland, the announcement that a team was working on a free software spell checker for Romansh (less than 25’000 native speakers), Microsoft hastened to offer a Romansh version of Windows…

    best

    Claude

  5. Jeff Msangi says:

    Ethan,
    One very interesting analysis about blogging and languages.I am a good example of recent bloggers who carries the burden,risks and challenges of using more than one language in one blog.Looking at the options that you mention I would definetely love to go with the third option of translating every post in all two or more languages that one uses.We all know how practically hard that is.Maintaining two blog each with independent language is quite fair and it would mean justice for all.The challenge of time and consistency would mean bias to one blog over another.The same challenge faces bloggers like me who tries to use two in one policy. If all things were possible I would love to see blogs that are interpreted in at least all major languages.Of course this is a mere wish but only that could bring justice and very true global freedom of expression.Why shouldn’t I be able to understand what French,Spanish,Hindu etc are writting about?Good thoughtful piece.Thank you for writting.

  6. Mina says:

    |||||Very interesting blog …I just started mine on http://www.livejournal.com and my user id is misshindufrench
    I found your through congogirl’s journal…By the way |I was unable to get on the Africa blog ????

  7. Boris says:

    Hrm.. Evidently reading weblogs at 4:30am is detrimental to proper contextual comprehension… ;)

  8. Loic says:

    Hi Ethan and all, agreed on the language divide being much more interesting than my ego issue ;-)

    Anyway, my option 3 was actually the option 5 of this comment thread unlike in your post but I understand you were in a plane.

    I don’t like this option much because I imagine an American reader of my blog getting 70% of the posts in his agregator in French… He would not like that much I guess.

    Still an open issue for me.

  9. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » English Bloggers, Bilingual Bloggers, and Political Bloggers in Tanzanian Blogosphere

  10. Kevin Ryan says:

    This will be resolved organically, as any sociolinguistic shift has done, throughout history. Observatiuon and commentary is good, but don’t expect any influence on the process. Linguistic change is like a hurricane, lots of wind and rain, not much you can do about it.

    Been living abroad for 30 years. Five in Europe, 25 in Asia. I teach linguistics in Tokyo.

  11. Bo says:

    I consulted this post before launching a blog for my organization in English and Japanese. Option 3 works pretty well, actually, if you expect many of your readers to be able to read both languages to some extent, but perhaps prefer one over the other.

    You can tweak Option 3 and serve up the reader’s preferred language, when you’ve translated your post, or whichever language you wrote an untranslated post in. It simply involves making up your own XML tags — ‹English› and ‹Japanese›, in my case. What lies inside the tags gets filtered out depending on the language your reader prefers. See here:

    English
    Japanese

  12. Brent says:

    Interesting post on the subject. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I’m ending up with something between 3 and 4. I started a foreign language blog as part of a class at school, but now continuing it I have to wonder to what interest it would be to most of my other friends, who would be reading it if it were in English…

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