Have you noticed that sometimes developers DO get it right but then are faced with strange user behaviours? No, I’m not talking about developers thinking that something should be the case, which isn’t. I’m talking about a strange chain of events on Facebook which makes me doubt the motivation of some language activists (yes, we’re allowed to self-criticize guys!).
We all know about Facebook. What we don’t all know about Facebook is that they have a pretty bizarre approach to translations (we can hardly call it localization…) and I don’t mean the fact they, for the most part, rely on community volunteers. No, it’s the process. There’s no clear process of adding or registering a new project and heaven knows how they actually pick the languages. At one point, Rumantsch was in (it now isn’t, no idea how it got in or why it’s now out, it’s a fairly small language with between 35,000 and 60,000 speakers), as is Northern Sami, Irish, Mongol and the usual big boys, including some questionable choices like Leet Speak and Pirate. So most languages are out. Not surprisingly, this has led to a number of Facebook groups and campaigns by people trying to get their languages into the project. There used to be a project page full of posts along the lines of “please add my language” and “how do we get Facebook to add our language?” – universally met with thundering silence. Admins were rarer than Lord Howe Island stick insects.
Back in whenever, a chap called Neskie Manuel had a crafty idea, about getting his language, Secwepemctsín, onto Facebook. Why not, he figured, find a way of overlaying Facebook with a “translation skin” in order to make the process of translation (and in this case even localization) independent of Facebook & Co? It was a neat idea, which was somewhat interrupted by his sad and untimely death.
Now, round about the same time, two things happened. The Bretons set up a “Facebook in Breton” compaign. Fair enough. And a chap called Kevin Scannell took on board Neskie’s Facebook idea. Excellent. Before too long, the Facebook group had over 12,000 members and Kevin had released his script for a slew of amazing languages. It overlays not all of Facebook but just the most visible strings (the one’s we see daily, not the boring EULAs and junk). Even more amazingly, it can handle stuff Facebook hasn’t even woken up to yet, such as plurals, case marking and so on. Wow indeed.
The languages hailed from the four corners of the planet, from Aragonese, Manx and Nawat through Hiligaynon, Secwepemctsín, Samoan, K’iche’ and Māori to Kunwinjku and Gundjeihmi (two Australian languages). Wow indeed. And, of course Breton.
Now here’s the bizarre thing though. Ok, it’s not the full thing but who’d turn down a sandwich while waiting for a roast chicken that might never appear? No one, you’d think, so based on a combined market share of some 50% between Firefox and Chrome, some 200,000 speakers and 12,000 people in the “Facebook in Breton” group, you’d expect what, anything north of 6,000 enthusiastic users of the Breton script. After all, more than 1,100 people installed it in Scottish Gaelic (less than 60,000 speakers) and more than 500 people in Manx (way less than 2,000 fluent speakers).
A case of “you’d think” indeed. To date, a mind-boggling 450 people have installed it in Breton. As far as I can tell, the translation is good and was done by a single, highly fluent speaker (Fulup Jakez who works for Ofis ar Brezhoneg). So it’s not a quality issue. The scripts work (I use the Gaelic one) so it’s not that either. The Facebook group was notified several times, so it’s not like they didn’t know. Ok, so maybe not all Likes of the group actually are from speakers, fair enough, but glancing through the active posters, a lot of them seem to be in the right “linguistic area”.
So while the groupies are still foaming at the mouth about the lack of support from Zuckerberg and Co, there’s a perfectly good interim that would allow you to say Kenavo to French and Degemer mat to Breton on Facebook every day. I really don’t get it. Is it really the case that some activists are more in love with the idea of the thing than would actually use it if it was around? Or am I missing something really obvious? I sure hope I am…
On a more positive note, I hope the general idea of this type of “overlay” will eventually take off big time. We will never be able to convince the big boys to support all the languages on the planet, all of which are equally worthy of services in their own languages, whether they’re trying to re-grow lost speakers or whether they’re just a small to medium sized community. So having a tool that puts control over what we see on our screens into our hands would be great. No more running from company to company trying to make the case for adding language X, a little less duplication (I don’t know how many zillion times I’ve translated “Edit picture”), better quality and more focus on the important bits of an interface to translate (not the EULA for example… a document that sadly every software company is keen to have translated as soon as possible without ever asking who’ll read it). Ach well, I can hope…
Well, it would seem messing up is not the sole domain of monolingual English-speaking developers. Goidelic developers (that’s Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Manx) are just as bad it would seem.
I wasn’t going to write about the rather painful episode that was MyGaelic.com. In fairness (as far as I know) it actually didn’t start out as a plan for a Gaelic social networking site but a promotional campaign to encourage younger people to learning Gaelic. This soon acquired plans for a website, then a social networking element and before you knew, it was only a social networking site. Seems to me like a classic case of scope creep and PM failure. Unfortunately no-one appears to have asked the question, while the scope was creeping, what social networking is and what makes it tick. Things like “critical mass” for example. Or the question of why I’d shift from Facebook to MyGaelic, thus restricting myself only to my (much smaller) circle of Gaelic-speaking friends. The point about Facebook surely is that (almost) everyone IS on it…
Anyway. I had hope that we’d drawn the curtains over social networking sites in Gaelic/Irish (which, incidentally does not mean I don’t want Facebook to add Gaelic as an interface language, on the contrary, or I wouldn’t have participated in the addon which translates the Facebook menus into Gaelic). Apparently not. Someone posted on Fòram na Gàidhlig about this new Irish site called AbairLeat, in essence an Irish-language social networking site, and asking what it was like. So I have a bash, with a modicum of trepidation.
Ok, the bright side first. It looks visually attractive, if a little confusing at first but then maybe I’m just a Facebook victim! Sign up, do my profile… oops. First problem. To keep it in Irish, they’ve set up a tool that measures the % of Irish content you’re typing. Anything above 70% and you’re ok to post. For some reason, this tool took exception to the inflected form “chuid” and “hAlban” … Pass as to why. Even the phrase “Is é do bheatha” gets a score of 75%. Now the idiom may be more Gaelic than Irish but the words are all Irish. It does come up with suggestions – theoretically. Except the right-click to get to them interferes neatly with the spellchecker menu in Firefox. Then there’s the window for posting – it looks massive but the font you type in is about what, point 20? Which means you run out of space fast and it doesn’t wrap. Or shift over. And the % are still weird. Add to that various other navigation bugs. So I grind my teeth and log in via Internet Explorer. No difference really except that I don’t have a browser spellchecker interfering cause IE doesn’t have one for Irish. And please, I’m not doing some kind of deep-down bizarre user testing. I’m just having a snoop around.
Eventually I manage to (double) post about this problem and get a very friendly admin (+++). Guess what – they know it’s buggy and apparently, I should use Chrome. 🙄 Great. There are two browsers available IN Irish. Firefox and IE. And they go and test in… Chrome. Nice one guys, full points.
- Do some user testing with real users, whatever language you’re aiming at
- Switch browsers once in a while and don’t assume people will switch browsers just because of your site
- Don’t release a really buggy version in a small language. Speakers of small languages are hard-to-convince customers at the best of times and once you’ve alienated them from your site, they’re unlikely to return.
I wish them all the best – of course I want to become a bustling hub of Irish. But talk about shooting yourself and your language in the foot.
Tags used in my posts
- Language Technology
- Minority languages
- Operating System
- Predictive Texting
- Scots Gaelic
- Search engine
- Social networking
- Speech Recognition
- User Testing
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