Alternative translation networks

For anyone interested in how progressive groups such as the European Social Forum handle the political minefield of multilingual communication (all languages are equal, all participants are equal, etc.) without a real translation budget, read Babels and the Politics of Language at the Heart of the Social Forum here. It offers fascinating parallels to the kind of problems met in the hierarchical, commercial world, both at the level of professional ‘IP’ concerns and in terms of technology fixes – in this case the development of what we might call corpora for later terminology mining. And it suggests that translation management is by its very nature a problem site (rather than just as a bunch of plug-in, goodwill-driven services) that raises issues that go way beyond strings, codes and words. But I’m surprised that there is no mention of links to the open source movement, which might provide a potent technical resource for software responses to Social Forum needs.

The article refers in particular to the work of Babels, the organization of interpreters and translators, and NOMAD, an umbrella group that tries to put technology to work for this translation space:

Babels is developing innovatory new language tools through activities like the Lexicon Project. This is an on-going effort by volunteers from a wide range of countries and backgrounds (teachers, students, professionals, activists) to create a comprehensive glossary of words and phrases to help interpreters and translators best reflect different meanings according to different national, cultural and politico-historical contexts. It is consciously creating a process of ‘contamination’ in which the excellent language skills of the politically sympathetic trained interpreter/translator interact with the deeper political knowledge of the language fluent activist to constantly improve the communications medium within the Social Forums.

Lexicons are being formed in conjunction with the Situational Preparation Project, more commonly known as ‘Sitprep.’, which records WSF and ESF plenaries and seminars in a wide range of languages on to DVD to allow any volunteer – experienced or inexperienced – to more realistically prepare for simultaneous interpretation in the Social Forum. This issue links to the broader ‘memory’ implications of the NOMAD project to which Babels belongs. As Sophie Gosselin argues elsewhere in this newsletter [I couldn’t find it], one of NOMAD’s main achievements so far has been the creation of Targ, an open source software system which can replace expensive propriety audio equipment used for live simultaneous interpretation. In addition to the revolutionary cost implications, using computers to relay the voices of speakers and interpreters the Targ system enables all speeches and interpretations to be easily archived, creating a direct and accurate ‘memory’ of all the debates, themes, and controversies of each Forum. Taking it a step further, the audio could also be streamed live over the Internet. These possibilities would allow millions of people currently outside of the Forum to take part via the web.

Significantly for Babels, the creation of Memory will allow the quality of interpretation to be assessed and new online ‘distance practice’ materials for inexperienced volunteers to be created. Not everyone will welcome this latter development within Babels. Many interpreters are already reluctant to have their work scrutinised and not just because they are ‘volunteers’. While professionals are simply not used to such practices in their particular labour market, non-professionals are often worried about being judged badly and marginalised. But if Babels is genuine about its commitment to ‘equality’ and ‘quality’ of communication’ within the Social Forums, then these worries will hopefully disappear.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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