Wk13: Lost In Translation – The Treachery Of English

Languages is still a challenge online

I consider myself, pretentiously, an international citizen. I speak a couple of languages and I’m learning another. That, coupled with travel has made me aware of what I call the “Treachery of English”. Why is technology so inherently English?

In the futuristic TV show Firefly, everyone speaks the only two languages that are left – English and Chinese. It doesn’t seem so much like science fiction anymore.

It seems an odd by-product of the internationalisation of our culture. That language seems to be moving to a Highlander model – there can be only one.

Digital success favours the English. How many great digital products have come from non-English properties? Perhaps only Spotify. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, YouTube, etc. All from English speaking countries (mainly the US). No wonder some countries see the internet itself as Western Imperialism.

How did we get here?

Sometimes the language itself is the problem. I worked for two years on a project to create a Chinese version of a website and was thrown head first into the problems of double byte. After we spent thousands, we would have had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.

URLs are in English. HTML uses Roman characters. The whole internet would have to be reinvented to make it otherwise. To work in the digital space you have to learn English. And sadly, this battle may have been fought and lost. Maybe some future iteration of HMTL may change it but I think not.

But there is a bigger threat. That framework of English washes down river, with major consequences.

New technologies start in English or Roman characters. With luck they expand futher, but usually they don’t. Twitter is reliant on English. iTunes only has one store that displays non Roman characters – Japanese. And most computers can’t disply it correctly because it uses a plugin for Windows. Even the Chinese keyboard on an iPhone, a device of infinite possibilities, is clumsy.

But it isn’t just east versus west.

Everything starts with one language – English. How far down the list is Danish? Czech? Or French Canadian? These are the languages that are dying out.

These smaller languages always get screwed. Movies, even big tentpole ones, don’t get translated into many languages. You might get a French, Chinese or German, but Serbian?

But here is the point of all this:

The digital revolution should destroy these market concerns.

We can reach anyone who can speak any language – online.

I am going to use Harry Potter as a barometer for languages. Those books were published in over 65 languages (including language variations like French Canadian, Cantonese and more). This says to me that there is a) a market, no matter how small and b) a translator probably looking for work.

Point a), the small market, should be big enough to support the zero printing cost of digital. And hopefully the profits from that small market can support the wages of Mr b).

And if that market is there, and it’s attended to and supported – it can grow

Then there are the books that already exist. For some reason, my iTunes/iBook account doesn’t let me buy any French books. Why? Why can’t I get the Serbian digital version of Harry Potter. Or at least the French one?

Like most things, it’s a hangover from the old world. Why would you print up French Harry Potters in the UK, when there is a small audience for it? But now it’s clicks of a button, the changing of territory rights in a table. Yet no one is looking at this. Or worse, someone is still thinking it’s not worth their time.

This might horrify right wingers who believe in one language for one country. But I believe otherwise. How great to be able to access books, movies and music in their original language.

Film, books and music companies are bleeding money. And online sales are healthy, but they are still missing out on a massive financial trick. All because we are still used to promoting and selling one language version in one country. Everything else is a niche market.

If we are all looking for money, surely catering to all language speakers everywhere is the first step.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I want to buy Roald Dahl’s works in French.

It exists. It’s been digitised. iTunes has it on their servers. I have a credit card. You want my money. I want to give it to them.

What’s the hold up?

How do we avoid the vision of the future from Firefly? How do we stop culture from sliding into a single language monotone?

We have to make the internet admit that there is more than just English. And the underused, under appreciated non English market could be a critical key in making digital products more profitable.

It’s a world wide web after all. Lets reflect the whole world.