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Wishful thinking à la Bretonne

03/02/2013 8 comments

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…

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