Language status and development in Central Asia

Central Asian languages emerged on the localization map of the world in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of independent states of the former Soviet republics. In terms of importance and volume of translation in the region, these languages still significantly lag behind Russian, but a number of them are showing dynamic development. The most dynamic languages include those of Central Asian countries and, above all, Kazakh.


Geographic definition and brief history

Kazakhstan is a country in Central Asia situated between the Caspian Sea, the Urals, Siberia and Central Asia, and ranks ninth in the world by land area. It is bordered to the north and west by Russia, to the east by China, and to the south by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. It is washed by the waters of the inland Caspian and Aral Seas.

Kazakhstan is a country with a rich historical and cultural past. Due to its location in the center of Eurasia, it is at the crossroads of transport routes, between Europe and Asia — it is at the intersection of cultural economic, social and ideological relations between the largest countries of the Eurasian continent. The total population of Kazakhstan, according to statistics from 2013, is almost 17 million. Kazakhs make up 63.1% of the population, and 23.7% is of the Russian diaspora.

The mining industry is well developed in Kazakhstan. Coal, oil, natural gas, iron, copper ore, lead, zinc, nickel ore, uranium ore, bauxite and other minerals are actively mined. The western regions of the country have considerable reserves of oil and gas, which rank the republic as one of the largest oil producers in the world. Companies such as LG, Panasonic, Chevrolet, Samsung and Bosch produce goods in Kazakhstan, and Astana is home to Microsoft’s regional headquarters. The main source of budget revenue is the export of oil and oil products, the transit of which mainly passes through Russia. The leading industries are ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy, the chemical industry, light industry, the food industry and machine building. Oil refining and production of building materials are also developed.

Recently, the most important factors in the development of Kazakhstan’s economy are innovations based on the application of scientific knowledge, and technology of new ideas and types of products in different areas of the manufacturing and service governance spheres. Even given technology advancements, the Kazakh language is estimated to be underserved on the web (see sidebar on p. 29).


Features of Central Asian markets

What are the main features of the localization markets in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries that distinguish them from, for example, Russian or European markets? The challenges are largely due to the mentality of the population and the initial stage of formation of the localization culture.

There is a high risk of failure in delivering projects on time. This feature is associated with the leisurely pace and largely patriarchal way of life. The concept of “deadline” is not a priority for many executors. If in the preparation of a job a freelance translator has confirmed that it will be handed in on time, this is not a guarantee of delivery of the project. A variety of events may occur, which from the point of view of the translator will be a sufficient argument for failure to deliver the project on time. In our practice, this includes power outages in the entire city, numerous personal circumstances, urgent departure for shift work in the oil industry and national conflicts, as was the case in Kyrgyzstan.

Anticipating or preventing such situations is practically impossible, and they may happen with the most proven translators, where there has been cooperation over the years, and is linked to the national mentality when priority is not given to working remotely, but to events taking place in the real world.

Another challenge, and as a consequence, risk factor, is the very low popularity of freelance-based forms of employment. This kind of relationship is only just being formed in countries of Central Asia and does not enjoy the support of local linguists. Local translators do not feel secure or linked when working under a distance contract with a company from Europe or the United States and may at any moment break such a relationship without providing any reasons. The majority of professional linguists prefer to work in an office on the basis of an employment contract, and the high demand for their services allows them to find such a job.

Another feature that adversely affects the formation of localization markets in Central Asia is migration. Young people who have higher education and started translation work often seek to immigrate in order to continue their education or begin a new career abroad. The most popular countries for immigration are the United States and Canada. This is due to the low popularity of the translation profession in countries of Central Asia, as well as a lack of specialists in foreign languages.

In addition, it should be noted that a number of Central Asian countries support sending experts to study abroad, and even provide financial assistance, with subsequent employment with local businesses. Because of the practice of investing in training local translation personnel, companies lose them and have to start again from scratch.

There is also underdevelopment of the region’s IT infrastructure. The internet has not yet come to every home in Central Asian countries. Internet access is expensive, and not affordable to everyone. In some remote areas of Kazakhstan and other countries, access is not even possible in principle. Also, the low level of awareness among linguists of translation technology, such as computer-aided translation programs and quality control programs, should be noted.

Additionally, there is a shortage of specialists with native language knowledge. In connection with the history of the region and with many years of being part of the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan, for example, it is difficult to find professional translators working from English into Kazakh. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the Central Asian republics gaining independence, it turned out that there were not even one hundred translation professionals working into national languages. In Soviet times, these experts were not in demand, as all official bodies and institutions used Russian exclusively. As a consequence, schools only trained translators in the English-Russian language pair.

Almost the entire population of Kazakhstan, regardless of nationality, is fluent in Russian (95% of the population understands Russian and 85% can read and write it). Kazakh as a spoken language is understood by 73% of the population, but only 62% can read and write Kazakh. Recent years have seen the growing popularity of English and the revival of the Kazakh language. Kazakhstan is developing its native language, translating business correspondence into it, and by 2025, Kazakh should become ubiquitous and dominant in all spheres of national life. Russian is still the language of international communication, but it should be noted that preliminary work is underway on conversion of the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet.

After the acquisition of the status of national languages, state universities spent considerable time responding to the urgent needs that arose. Very often, national language translators were English-Russian translators living in the region, or the new graduates of language schools. Of course, both categories of translator required a considerable time to reach a professional level.

Finally, there is an absence of established terminology for the “new” sectors of the economy. This problem is typical for all developing languages. For key terms, such as in the field of information technology and modern medicine, Central Asian languages simply have no equivalents, and translators needing to translate a number of advanced topics are faced with developing terminology in parallel with translation.

In a number of countries in Central Asia, the issues of national language are of national importance, which is leading to a number of additional formalities in the field of special terminology.

For example, in Kazakhstan, the new terminology must be approved by a government special committee, which meets twice a year. This feature imposes a number of restrictions on both the work of translation companies and corporate plans to produce products for national markets.

Given all these challenges, what recommendations can be given to companies localizing their products into Central Asian languages? The optimum solution, of course, is cooperation with translation companies with production offices in the regions. This solution is more reliable compared to working with freelance translators, and also enables the formation and development of a project team (which includes knowledge of software terminology and subject matter) and guarantees the reduction of occupational risks when working on critical projects. In contrast to well-formed European markets, work with freelancers is extremely difficult due to the high country-related risks described previously.

However, it should be noted that with the growth of the national economies of Central Asian countries, there is the active process of forming local translation communities: the number of qualified linguists is increasing and the popularity of modern translation technologies is growing. All this speaks in favor of the fact that in time, these languages will move from the category of emerging languages to the standard set of localization languages.