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  • Writer's pictureRichard Harvey

Lost in translation

Thanks to the good efforts of colleagues at the University of Hyderabad, Prabhakar Rao and R Siva Prasad the latest edition of the International Review of Information Ethics is out. And it is a peach. One of the themes is linguistic diversity, or not, of the internet. Both the article editors come from Hyderabad In Telangana where fewer than 2% of the population speak Hindi and, is often the case in India, there is a spectacular flourishing of languages.

That said, there is a constant theme in the intellectual literature which can be summarised as follows: language death is bad; the internet is all in English; English dominates intellectual discourse; therefore English is somehow bad. Fortunately, none of these statements are true. There is a rapid change in the linguistic demographics of the internet. And even if languages are dying, whinging about it will do not good. It is a curious fact, that efforts to enforce linguistic diversity are hopeless failures. Even the UN, which has had a very firm commitment to multilingualism over very many years, has abjectly failed to make its materials available in its own official languages (and that audit covers only externally-facing websites - by all accounts the internal picture is worse). So we have a paradox -- the UN seeks to preserve linguistic diversity around the world but cannot do so itself. When I realised this, it seemed unlikely that the UN was particularly incompetent or dishonest -- my dealings with people from the UN have been positive and many many people at the UN are highly cosmopolitan and linguistically diverse. So, I came to the conclusion that something else was going on.

That thing is described here. For those of you who are short of time, here is the nub of my argument: compelled speech is wrong. It is wrong and misguided to force any legal person to speak a language they do not speak. So far, so good? But surely you cannot mean it is wrong to force large corporations or governments to speak a language they do not want to speak? Yes my friends I do mean that. And that means that the UK has got it badly wrong with the various bits of legislation mandating entities to speak Welsh. My view would be that, if an organisation wishes to appeal to Welsh speakers then they would be wise to speak Welsh and Welsh local government might also be wise to do so but compelled speech is wrong. Furthermore, with corporate translation there is an immediate question of trust. Do you trust your government to translate fairly and transparently?

The answer however, is not in ludicrously expensive human translation but machine translation. Although machine translation is not perfect, it is better than many people imagine and it has the great advantage of being under the control of the user and not the corporation.

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