A truly multilingual web?

A unanimous decision last night by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers which regulates the naming system for websites, to permit domain names to be written in scripts other than English, is being heralded as a new era of international web use.

Traditionally, domain names have been restricted to 26 characters in the Latin alphabet and could include ten numerals and a hyphen. Critics have long argued that this was unfair on groups whose languages did not use English characters. In many ways this is true – is it really fair to expect someone in China with a Chinese keyboard to figure out how to input English characters so that they could visit a website in their own country? Absolutely not. Similarly, it is hard to justify forcing someone in Israel or in Saudi Arabia to transliterate the names of companies or organisations just so that they can get a website.

Promotional video from ICANN explaining internationalised domain names (Source:

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Nice try but I think I’ll translate it myself

The New Scientist is singing the praises of a new add-on for the Firefox browser which I’m guessing is supposed to challenge the dominance of Google in the browser-based machine translation market or at least provide an alternativet. Billed as the “Universal translator for web browsers” the World Wide Lexicon Toolbar is available from the Mozilla website and is claimed to make it much easier to translate web pages from one language into another. According to the Mozilla site, the add-on automatically detects the language of the website you are visiting and translates it into the default language of your browser.

The World Wide Lexicon Toolbar at work supposedly

The World Wide Lexicon Toolbar at work supposedly

No big deal, you might say, the Google toolbar already does something very similar (although it’s not automatic). But apart from being automatic, the add-on first offers human translations from other toolbar users, then it offers translations from machine translation services including Google, Apertium and others. Sounds really good, doesn’t it? It would be if the thing actually worked! I installed it and visited a couple of high profile German websites and nothing. Absolutely nothing. No automatic translation, not even an attempt at a manual translation. I even went to the website thinking, how hard can that be? There are only about three dozen words on the page but still nothing.
Now I know it’s only an “experimental” lemon, I mean, add-on but the developers really could have put a bit more effort into this. There’s an old saying about doing the little things well but this add-on doesn’t do anything at all except add some really ugly buttons to my toolbar. I also think the suggested $10 donation they are asking for is a bit cheeky considering it just doesn’t work. Until they get their house in order I don’t think Google will have anything to worry about. If I ever get the thing working, I might revisit it here.



Say it, dont spray it!

Say it, don't spray it!

An office worker in New Zealand has been sacked for sending emails in block capitals, in a case that shows that the Internet too has its own culture and norms, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t respect this. Vicki Walker was forced out of her job as an accountant at a healthcare company after colleagues complained that her emails were too “shouty” and confrontational. Apparently she had sent emails with sentences which were entirely in capitals, sometimes bold, sometimes red or blue. Her defence was that she merely wanted to make sure that people understood what she was saying. Her employers, however, told a tribunal that she spread disharmony among her co-workers. Here is just one example from her emails that was presented to the tribunal: “TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECK LIST.

Questionable grammar aside, this is nothing if not an eyesore, the visual equivalent of slapping someone about the head with a pair of dirty old underpants. The employment tribunal, however, found that although she had caused friction in her office and created something of a bad atmosphere, she had nevertheless been unfairly dismissed, not least because the company did not have a written style guide for writing emails. It’s not clear from the reports whether she was issued with a formal warning before being dismissed, but I have to say she should most definitely have been cautioned and sent on a sensitivity or communication course.

There was a time when I used to look at discussions on newsgroups and wonder why people would get so wound up by messages consisting almost entirely of capital letters. Nowadays I can see the point. It’s really, really, really annoying. Usually the best place to see the Caps Lock key abused so blatantly is on discussion forums when people are discussing highly emotive subjects. But I think some people either forget or do not realise that writing in capitals really is the online equivalent of standing on a table and screaming your head off. Some people just don’t care. It is a symptom, though, of a general inability on the part of a huge proportion of the population to communicate electronically. I’ve lost count of the number of emails I have received, from customers, colleagues and students which at best read like an SMS message and at worst like something from the Da Vinci Code. Some people seem to think that the ease and speed of electronic communication is carte blanche for informality and general laziness.

With written electronic communication, because there are no visual, non-verbal cues to aid communication (remember that the vast majority of normal communication relies on these cues) even the slightest deviation in expectations or conventions can spontaneously take on hugely complex and frequently inaccurate meanings. I’m still taken aback at emails that start “Dear Jody Byrne” – I don’t really know why I do but it makes me feel objectified and spoken down to, even though it’s probably because people don’t know whether I’m a “Mr.” or a “Ms.” on account of my first name. But everything you write, every comma, exclamation mark (in Germany they tend to come in threes and have been known to spark panicked stampedes of crazed urgency) and word in an email can be interpreted in any number of ways and without the visual cues to put it into context and help eliminate the incorrect interpretations, they become amplified and sometimes blown out of all proportion.

But writing in capitals, apart from being downright rude, irritating and the sign of a poor writer, can actually have the opposite effect to what the culprit is aiming for. You see, when we read, we don’t read each individual letter in a word, we recognise the word by its overall shape (unless of course it’s a word we don’t already know). Now the meaning of each word is stored along with a graphical representation or shape in our long-term memory. The way our brains work is that if information has a graphical association, we can retrieve it much more quickly than if it has no such association. In writing words in capitals you are destroying this graphical image which helps us recognise the word and retrieve its meaning. This means we have to analyse each word, letter by letter. The net result is that instead of instantly recognising a sequence of words, you’ve presented readers with something that’s harder and more time-consuming to read and increased the chance of readers not understanding it properly. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Writing in capital letters is reminiscent of that clichéd character you used to see in English sitcoms where, when confronted with someone who didn’t speak English, the character would usually speak much, much louder and much more slowly as if the person’s inability to understand was due to them being both deaf and stupid.

Ways to stop shouty emails - No. 231

"Ways to stop shouty emails" - No. 27

There are so many things that people find irritating about electronic communication that it makes you wonder whether the time has come to do something about it. I think a good starting point would be to recall all computer keyboards and surgically remove the Caps Lock key. There is a way of disabling it using your computer’s registry but I think the symbolism of physically removing the keys and melting them down is pretty important. (I also think we should stop email programs having the ability to compose HTML emails too because this only encourages people to add colour to their uppercase missives and apart from being pointless, they take up bandwidth unnecessarily). If, after removing the Caps Lock keys, people persist in assaulting us with badly spelled (spellcheckers tend to ignore uppercase words) uppercase nonsense, the offenders should be glued to a giant Caps Lock key and driven through the streets on the back of a donkey and cart. Problem solved!


How not to stop Internet pirates

A better option than criminalising ordinary Internet users?

Clouseau would have better luck than these daft new proposals

A recent report in the Independent newspaper in England outlined the government’s plans to put the onus on ISPs to help track down people who illegally download copyright material such as music and films. Under the scheme, Internet companies would be responsible for identifying and reporting illegal downloaders who then face large fines and having their access to the Internet withdrawn among other things. In all honesty, this has to be one of the daftest ideas I have heard in a long time.

Surely it would be much better to go after the people who upload the illegal files in the first place? First off, there are fewer of them so it should be easier and cheaper to catch them. There’s also the fact that in order to rent the space on a web server where you can store the files, you need to provide your name, address and credit card details. Now I’m no criminologist but I’d imagine that this would be pretty much all you’d need if you wanted to send a police car around to pick up some evil wrong-doers. The current approach is a bit like turning around and saying that you’re only going to concentrate on catching drug users and not the dealers, presumably because drug dealers are but humble shopkeepers.

Illegal downloads have also made an appearance in the translation industry, albeit to a lesser extent. I once had a student bound excitedly into class saying that he had found a “really cool website where you can download Trados for free”. Intrigued, I asked him about the site. He said “yeah, once you get past the porn ads and the pop-ups there’s this link…”. What the student had found was a crackz site. Nothing to do with drugs, crackz are hacked versions of software with the licence mechanisms removed or bypassed so you can, in theory at least, use the software for free. Software like Trados has long been a favourite and it goes to show that even translators with their impeccable moral standards can be tempted. At one point a few years ago crackz were so prevalent that I actually had to incorporate them into my technologies course. Not just because I agree with them but because of the hidden dangers of using crackz.

The problem with these sites, as my student found out, is that they are usually riddled with all sorts of viruses, malware and ads for pornography.

Computer piracy: It's not all rum and wenches

Then, even if you do manage to get past the flurry of boobs and other body parts, the software you download can contain Trojan horses which will do all sorts of bad things to your computer from stealing information to turning it into a zombie computer ready for the next large-scale, headline-grabbing assault on some high-profile Internet target. So by saving a few quid on downloading free software you could kill your computer and probably get yourself put on some FBI watch-list. Not worth the hassle really, is it?

Still, you can see why some people are tempted by offers of free software. The sheer price of many products can often seem unreasonable. Of course a lot of time and effort goes into developing these applications and companies don’t develop products for the hell of it. However, some companies are so bloated in terms of workforce and bureaucracy that their prices are artificially inflated. In the current economic climate you have to wonder whether this is a sensible way of doing things.

The long and the short of it is that piracy isn’t cool, it’s theft and by downloading files you are robbing people of well-earned payment, recognition and possibly even their jobs. Also, by stealing stuff you are hitting yourself somewhere else – in the case of music, your favourite band may get dropped before they get to their second album or you’ll get stung with exorbitant ticket and merchandise prices; in the case of software there’ll be less choice, more expensive support and training. Either way, you’ll be hurting yourself. But having said all that, companies could do more to understand why people feel it’s ok to download illegally and look at their pricing structures. People aren’t inherently criminals, so why turn them into that?


Are translators too reliant on the Internet?

I had a strangely unsettling experience over the weekend which has left me a little concerned for the future of translation and possibly even the world as we know it.  OK, maybe not the world, just translation. What happened? I couldn’t access the Internet! Yep, my ISP decided that the day I started on a large medical translation was the day they would shut down half of their network for “essential maintenance”. Typical!

A drug-eluting coronary stent

A drug-eluting coronary stent

So there I was, ready to start working on a medical text (on coronary stents and aortic aneurysms no less) and about to do my usual ritual of spending some time scanning the web for parallel texts and clarifying the meanings of unusual terms, but not this time. After the initial indignation bordering on rage at the fact that I couldn’t get online, this indignation gave way to unease. What if there was term I didn’t know? How would I find out how to translate it?  Now I have dozens of general and specialised dictionaries at hand and over 12 years experience as a translator so there really wasn’t anything to worry about but not having Internet access, and more specifically no Google, knocked me sideways and it took me a good half hour to regain my composure.

Google has helped reinforce my belief that translators shouldn’t put too much faith in dictionaries because they are often out of date and won’t tell you which of the various synonyms is correct. On top of that they rarely tell you how to use a particular word; the style and general language usage of certain genres of texts often being every bit as important as the specialised terms they contain. (I have to confess that I have been known on occasion to advise students to forget about paper dictionaries and use Google instead because parallel texts in particular are the only way to go when translating.) But Google has also made researching subjects much faster – or at least it seems that way. You mightn’t really find the answer any sooner but you’ll plough through a lot more material looking for it in the same time. I think I’ve gotten used to the fact that with access to Google, you can find the answer to any question providing you know how to search and more importantly, how to separate the wheat from the chaff in search results and you can do this much more quickly than nipping down to the local public library. There’s also a certain reassurance that comes from simply knowing it’s there.

This begs the question of whether we (I’m assuming it’s not just me who’s been affected by this) have become too dependent on the Internet. Yes it’s amazingly useful and fast, and yes it helps us to access enormous amounts of resources but what would happen to us as translators if we woke up one morning in an apocalyptic post-Internet age where Luddites danced through the streets rejoicing at the fact that there was no Internet and no search engines, iPhones, netbooks or online databases? Would we have become so reliant on the Internet that we would have forgotten how to do translation the old-fashioned way (”acoustic translation” for want of a better term – ok that’s probably not as funny as it sounds in my head). Would the quality of translations suddenly plummet? Would translators simply sit there, bewildered and at a complete loss as to where they should start?

Or am I just getting my undergarments knotted over nothing? Is lamenting the good old days when translators used pens and paper and the occasional carrier pigeon and never resorted to such demon-possessed trickery as the interweb the same as yearning for the “make-do” days when people could darn socks, use an abacus or wash half a dozen kids with one bathful of water? Useful skills maybe but, let’s be honest, not particularly desirable or likely ever to come back into fashion. Was translation “purer”, more honest and more difficult back then? Who knows?

As for my translation, I finished it on time and my subject knowledge of the area and old-fashioned paper dictionaries came through in the end… it just took a little longer to get started.