The internet boom of the past decade has been a boon for xenophiles. Want to follow Senegalese hiphop? Zimbabwean labor actions? Panamanian cooking? There’s a newsfeed, a blog, YouTube videos for you to follow. The only excuse for not finding information about most corners of the world is lack of interest on your part… which turns out to be sufficient barrier to prevent most of us from moving much beyond parochial media.
That’s what I thought a few years ago, as I started subscribing to news and blogs from all corners of the world. As an anglophone, I could follow most of these conversations because, a few years back, a substantial portion of online conversations were taking place in English. That’s changed radically in the past few years, and is going to change even more as the next billion internet users come online.
The cyberutopian fantasy – that we’re all participants in a global conversation – is just that: a fantasy. A few years ago, it was reasonably common for people in the developing world to blog in English because they had to assume their audience was an international one. But as more people come online, more people in developing nations are speaking to their friends and countrymen, and they’re often speaking in their mother tongues. These conversations aren’t for your benefit – you’d need more than translation to participate. You’d need context, explanations of what the conversation is about… and you’d need an invitation to participate in the dialog, a reason for your voice to be added to the debate.
We tried to address the plurality of languages at Global Voices by expanding our coverage to include translation of non-English blogs, a move that seems obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t part of our initial vision. We now have regular translations from Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Persian, Russian and Chinese, and less regular translations from Polish, Serbian, Swahili, Kurdish and other languages. Which is great if you read English, but not as helpful if you speak Mandarin and want to know what people are talking about in Tanzania.
A number of people in our community were worried about this problem, but Portnoy Zheng, a graduate student in Taiwan (now participating in the mandatory 18 months of military service required for all Taiwanese young men), took action – he began translating some GV posts into Chinese. Recruiting a team of other translators, the GV Chinese site now features a wealth of content from around the world. Senegalese reactions to Wade’s re-election, translated from French to English by Alice Backer and then into Chinese? Yeah, we got that.
The success of GVO Chinese inspired other parts of the GV community to start their own volunteer-based localizations of GV content. As of today, there are projects underway to make translations available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, traditional and simplified Chinese. Coming next is Bangla, which is forcing folks within the GV community to download language and font packages for a script most of us didn’t know existed. (That’s because we’re idiots. Bangla, or Bengali, is spoken by 230 million speakers, making it one of the world’s most widely spoken languages.) Some of these sites have only one or two posts translated – others are quite robust, like the Spanish site, which maintains a version of the Global Voices daily digest, which I maintain is the best way to read our site.
Also in the works is a system to allow these translation sites to “phone home” to our main site, which will allow us display what other language versions are available for every post we publish. And there’s a good debate – mostly theoretical at this point – about how we manage conversations and comment threads that cut across language issues. The real hope from translating Senegalese comments into Chinese is that you end up with dialog between francophone Senegalese authors and commenters in China… which brings us back to the questions of context and communication. Even with talented translators running interference, talking across language and cultural lines is a challenge and an adventure, even if you’re not leaving your home and your broadband internet connection.
Give us a few months to see what those conversations might look like. In the meantime, a whole other set of conversations has emerged from the people building Global Voices together. I’ve gotten very used to opening my inbox to find birthday wishes, news of new babies, eulogies to fallen friends from every corner of the world. One of the best ways to find something to talk about across cultures is to work through a common challenge: launching the Lingua project (our codename for the GV localization effort) has involved regular dialogs between our Haitian-American team leader in New York, pioneering contributors in Taiwan, Brazil and Germany, and our designers in Tokyo and Montreal. Whatever comes from the Global Voices project as a whole, we’ve all learned more about each other than I’d had any reason to expect two years ago, when Rebecca and I started linking to a couple of non-American blogs…