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Technology that translates, and unites

A cellphone may let a U.S. soldier 'speak' in Pashto or Dari. A browser can pick up on linguistic nuance.

By Staff writer / June 7, 2010

Jud Guitteau


This is the second in a two-part series on making the Web more worldwide. The first article is available here.

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The "digital divide" between those who can afford an Internet connection and those who can't is sprouting an evil twin: a "language divide."

The roots of the Internet lie in United States military and university research projects, conducted in English. That language is still preferred online for international commerce and science.

But the scene is shifting rapidly. Tens of millions of new Internet users do not speak or read English and seek content in their own languages. China alone has 400 million people online – more than the entire US population – and the vast majority only read Chinese.

"There's a Chinese Internet that we don't interact with very much. There's an Arabic Internet that we don't interact with very much," says Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of Global Voices, a community of more than 300 bloggers and translators around the world who seek out voices that are not ordinarily heard in the mainstream news media.

Those who can only read in their native language are "missing this extraordinary opportunity to get much, much better at understanding what people around the world are thinking and saying and feeling," he says.

In May, the organization that regulates Internet domain names made history when it permitted three countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – to display their Web addresses (those ending in .eg for Egypt, .sa for Saudi Arabia, .ae for the UAE) in their native Arabic characters rather than English. Many other countries, including China, are expected to follow suit.

We're "way beyond" English as the language of the Internet, contends Mr. Zuckerman, whose Global Voices website is translated into 15 languages by more than 200 volunteers. "The Internet is for everybody these days."

The Web giant Google sees a commercial opportunity in making more of the Web readable, whether it's helping an English speaker read a Web page in Urdu or a Basque read an English-only website. Google Translate ( now offers quick, computer-generated translations between 57 languages, including Urdu (spoken by 60 million to 90 million people in parts of India and Pakistan) and Basque (with more than 600,000 speakers in Spain and France).

How good is Google Translate?

Google's software gives a pretty good gist of what's happening in the opening passage of two classic novels in French and Spanish. But it does poorly compared with a human translator in making sense of some Chinese texts.

Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," translated from French by F.P. Walter: The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.

Translated by Google: The year 1866 was marked by an odd event, unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon that no one has probably forgotten.

"Don Quixote," translated from Spanish by John Ormsby: In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.

Translated by Google: Somewhere in la Mancha, whose name I do not remember, not long ago lived a nobleman from the lance in the lance, an old shield, a lean hack and a greyhound.

"The Analects of Confucius," translated from Chinese by an anonymous human: The Master said, "Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?"

Translated by Google: The Master said: "Learning while learning, not a pleasure? Have friends from afar? Is it not resentful, almost did not have a gentleman?"