Context,subtext and inter-text

There are two points with which I’d like to begin:

  • One, in their Credits to Contributors section, Mozilla (for both Firefox and Thunderbird) state that “We would like to thank our contributors, whose efforts make this software what it is. These people have helped by writing code and documentation, and by testing. They have created and maintained this product, its associated development kits, our build tools and our web sites.” (Open Firefox, go to Help -> About Mozilla Firefox -> Credits, and click on the Contributors hyperlink)
  • Two, whether with design or, with inadvertent serendipity, projects using Transifex tend to end up defining their portals as “translate.<insert_project_name>.domain_name”. Translation, as an aesthetic requirement is squarely in the forefront. And, in addition to the enmeshed meaning with localization, the mere usage of the word translation provides an elevated meaning to the action and, the end result.

A quick use of the Dictionary applet in GNOME provides the following definition of the word ‘translation’:

The act of rendering into another language;  interpretation; as, the translation of idioms is  difficult. [1913 Webster]

With each passing day innovative software is released under the umbrella of various Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects. For software that is to be consumed as a desktop application, the ability to be localized into various languages makes the difference in wide adoption and usage. Localization (or, translation) projects form important and integral sub-projects of various upstream software development projects.

In somewhat trivial off-the-cuff remarks which make translation appear easier than it actually is, it is often said that translation is the act of rendering into a target language the content available in the source language. However, localization and translation are not merely replacing the appropriate word or phrases from one language (mostly English) to another language. It requires an understanding of the context, the form, the function and most importantly the idiom of the target language ie. the local language. And yet, in addition to this, there is the fine requirement of the localized interface being usable, while being able to appropriate communicate the message to users of the software – technical and non-technical alike.

There are multiple areas that were briefly touched in the above paragraph. The most important of them being the interplay of contextsubtext and inter-text. Translation, by all accounts, provides a referential equivalence. This is because languages and, word forms evolve separately. And, in spite of adoption and assimilation of words from languages, the core framework of a language remains remarkably unique. Add to this mix the extent with which various themes (technology, knowledge, education, social studies, religion) organically evolve and, there is a distinct chance that idioms and meta-data of words,phrases which are so commonplace in a source language, may not be relevant or, present at all in the target language.

This brings about two different problems. The first, whether to stay true to the source language or, whether to adapt the form to the target language. And, the second, as to how far would losses in translations be acceptable. The second is somewhat unique – translations, by their very nature have the capacity to add/augment to the content, to take away/subtract from the content thereby creating a ‘loss’ or, they can adjust and hence provide an arbitrary measure of compensation. The amount of improvement or, comprehension a piece of translated term can bring forward is completely dependent on the strength of the local language and, the grasp over the idiomatic usage of the same that the translator brings to the task at hand. More importantly, it becomes a paramount necessity that the translator be very well versed in the idioms of the source language in additional to being colloquially fluent in the target language.

The first problem is somewhat more delicate – it differs when doing translations for content as opposed to when translating strings of the UI. Additionally, it can differ when doing translations for a desktop environment like, for example, Sugar. The known user model of such a desktop provides a reference, a context that can be used easily when thinking through the context of words/strings that need to be translated. A trivial example is the need to stress on terms that are more prevalent or, commonly used. A pit-fall is of course it might make the desktop “colloquial”. And yet, that would perhaps be what makes it more user-friendly. This paradox of whether to be source-centric or, target-friendly is amplified when it comes to terms which are yet to evolve their local equivalents in common usage. For example, terms like “Emulator” or, “Tooltip” or, “Iconify”being some of the trivial and quick examples.

I can pick up the recent example of “Unmove” from PDFMod to illustrate a need to appreciate the evolution of English as a language and, to point to the need for the developers to listen to the translators and localization communities. The currently available tools and, processes do not allow a proper elaboration of the context of the word. In English, within the context of an action word “move” it is fairly easy to take a guess at what “Unmove” would mean. In languages where the usage of the action word “move” in the context of an operation on a computer desktop (here’s a quirk – the desktop is a metaphor that is being adopted to be used within the context of a computation device) is evolving, Unmove itself would not lend itself well to translation. Such “absent contexts” are the ones which create a “loss in translation”.

The singularity here is that the source language strings can evolve beautifully if feedback is obtained from the translated language in terms of what does improve the software. The trick is perhaps how best to document the context of the words and phrases to enable a much richer and useful translated UI. And, work on tooling that can include and incorporate such feedback. For example, there are enormous enhancements that can be trivially (and sometimes non-trivially) made to translation memory or, machine translation software so as to enable a much sharper equivalence.

(The above is a somewhat blog representation of what I planned to talk about at GNOME.Asia had my travel agent not made a major mess of the visa papers.)

2 thoughts on “Context,subtext and inter-text”

  1. Hi Sankarshan, sorry to hear about your travel problems. It seems there weren’t a lot of other talks on l10n planned at GNOME.Asia :-/

    Yes, I think a lot of us localisers also oversimplify things when trying to attract more people into our volunteer communities. My language, Afrikaans, is linguistically somewhat related to English, but we also sometimes struggle with some of these things; “unmove” being a very nice example.

    Please share your ideas with how we can make things better in our tools. I have some ideas for more advanced TM matching methods, but they will need substantial time to implement, and I’m not 100% sure what their consequences will be. Still, we should dream…

    Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.