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Dwayne Bailey is a man of action; and the kind of person who calls other translators to action as well. If you've never heard of Bailey, you've got him to thank for the African language versions of (currently Zulu, Northern Sotho and Afrikaans, to Bailey's knowledge the first office software localized into African languages), the Afrikaans version of Firefox, and the South African language versions of Google. As the founder of the non-profit organization, whose mission is “producing Free and Open Source software that enables and empowers South Africans,” Bailey has a powerful vision of open source software translation's power to effect social change. All the more impressive is that Bailey has accomplished all this with a core paid staff of two people, in a country with 11 official languages and varied rates of literacy and economic stability among its various ethnic groups. To those who complain that various applications aren't available in their language, Bailey advises “take your complaints and go fix things.”

After working on Linux professionally “on and off since 1996,” Bailey founded in 2001 to combine his “passion for South Africa” with his desire to give something back to the open source community. Since then, Bailey says that the project has “grown both up and down as we try to find the right mix of translation and volunteerism.” Basically, Bailey has taken the long-tested organizational model of free software development itself, and applied it to the translation of free software. Bailey's website lists an impressive array of sponsors including The Department of Communications of South Africa and Hewlett-Packard South Africa. Although Bailey attributes some of his sponsorship help to “being in the right place at the right time,” he also notes that “I have learnt over time that it's not good enough to simply translate software- you need to know why you want to do it. That may sound silly, but it's these social goals that help keep the project focused.”

One of the key elements of Bailey's model is to break down the translation of a full application into small, sometimes even tiny chunks. The idea is largely powered by the project's web-based translation tool Pootle, or PO-based Online Translation/Localization Engine that allows translators to contribute to various projects, even by “translating ten words a day on their lunch breaks.” Pootle is the interface used for another of's innovations, the “translate@thon,” where project team members and volunteers get together for a day and translate software. Pootle allows this to happen with very little set-up, and has resulted in some successful events such as one where five people worked on translating Firefox into Xhosa. Bailey admits that the output from translate@thons, normally not produced by professional translators, “needs a very good review afterwards,” but focuses on the larger goal of “educating the participants about the need for localized software.” He also notes that translate@thons have spawned further translation efforts, such as a group of Zulu translation students from the Durban Institute of Technology who met at a translate@thon and kept the project going during their vacations.

When asked whether he has ever approached proprietary software companies to discuss translation into South African languages, Bailey comments that “we have tried unsuccessfully to engage some of the proprietary vendors, most notably Microsoft, with very limited success. We realize that creating a shared resource of computer terminology is important for the language, but it seems that others don't see that as important. Microsoft has started localizing their products into South African languages, and I hope that our efforts and those of Microsoft will encourage others to localize their software. But ultimately I still believe that it is only Free Software that can have any measurable socio-economic impact on the poor.”

Translating open source software produces a community benefit, but Bailey also sees it as a big plus for translators themselves. Personally, Bailey wonders why more professional translators aren't involved in free software translation, citing several benefits of getting involved in these projects. “First, you get credit for your work, unlike when you work for a proprietary vendor. Second, people use your work and see it every day, unlike when you translate a pill packet insert that someone sees once. Third, you get to practice your skills. Fourth, you determine how much work you want to do. Finally, by localizing into your language, you create a demand for your skills. A localized web browser then demands localized web content.”

Bailey's biggest message to others who would like to do what he does is: do it! Saying “too many times, particularly in Africa I hear people tell me that they are thinking about starting a localization project. Well then start!” As a case in point, Bailey highlights the recently launched site, for which his project provided the translations. While some users have criticized the translations themselves and others have wondered when Google will have all 11 official South African languages on the site, Bailey says “rather than writing to your local newspaper to complain, put some action behind your opinions. Roll up your virtual sleeves and begin translating.”





This article may be freely reproduced or redistributed
for non-commercial use with attribution to the author
Copyright 2005 by Corinne McKay


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