Open Source Update: Questions and Answers with Marc Prior
Questions and Answers with Marc Prior
This month we'll be having an electronic coffee chat with Marc Prior, a Germany-based translator who is an active contributor to many aspects of the free software for translators community. Marc is an original member of the OmegaT team and maintains the Linux for Translators website in addition to his translation work. Here are Marc's thoughts on a number of issues of interest to the FOSS translator community.
Open Source Update: Marc,
or may we call you "Mr. Linux for Translators," can
you tell us a bit about how you got started working
with Linux and open source software?
Like many people who use Linux, I turned to it more out of frustration with the market leader's products than out of sympathy with any abstract ideals. When I began freelancing in 1993, I regarded it almost as a sign of professionalism to have as much software as possible. I bought MS Word, WordPerfect and the Lotus Suite, for instance, in order to support all the corresponding file formats natively if needed. By the end of the decade, though, I was becoming increasingly tired of update cycles that were costing serious money whilst apparently adding little in the way of value. In 1997, for instance, I paid 4,000 Deutschmarks (around US$2,000) for a certain translation memory package, and a mere eight months later, I was invited to spend another 2,000 Deutschmarks on the upgrade that would enable it to be used with the next MS Office version.
I was frustrated that computer software and hardware manufacturers were having a bigger and bigger say in how I worked. I had reluctantly begun using Windows (at version 3.1), but until then, I had even resisted using a mouse. I still consider the computer mouse to be an ergonomic disaster, unless you happen to have three arms. Worse, my computer itself was increasingly making decisions on my behalf. I would install a new program only to find that all manner of desktop settings had been changed, for example. The crunch came when I began building my own web site. I had always used Netscape Navigator as my browser: out of sheer habit more than anything else and not for any technical reason, much less out of conviction. But when I installed the web builder software (the name of which I forget), it reset my default browser to Internet Explorer. For me, that was the straw that broke the camel's back, although in all fairness, some open-source software is little better in this regard.
At this point I must backtrack a little. In 1998, I had met up with a group of colleagues in Paris, and I found myself talking to three of them who by coincidence all said the same thing: that they had an old 486 PC gathering dust in the cellar and that they were going to install Linux on it. Then, at his birthday barbecue, a friend, a programmer but one who is quite well-known in the translation community, described how programmers were also becoming frustrated with Windows and would rather be programming for Linux.
I got the impression that something big was about to happen, and this "something" was called "Linux". So when the crunch finally came, in the summer of 1999, I went down to my local computer store and asked them for "Linux". (I had no idea what distributions were, much less of the differences between them.) I emerged from the store with the last remaining copy of SuSE 6.1, after the saleswoman had brushed the dust off it.
There then followed a period in which I made a lot of mistakes which newcomers to Linux thankfully need no longer make! Describing them all is a story in itself. Suffice to say, when I had finally obtained a suitable PC and after spending a week working through the manual supplied with the software, I had a working Linux system.
I remember being staggered by what I saw. I had expected a black UNIX terminal like the ones I'd used at college a decade previously. Instead, there was a full-blown GUI with respectable icons, drag and drop, the works. Not only that, there was also a huge choice of software contained within this package; at least three word processors, for example. All free. It was like being in Aladdin's cave.
To my great surprise, I was actually
able to start translating on Linux immediately. At
this time, translators who used translation memory
were still in the minority, so the complete absence
of any CAT tools wasn't necessarily an obstacle. The
compatibility of the various word processors with
Microsoft Word left a lot to be desired, but again,
it was still reasonably common, if not necessarily
the norm, for me to have no electronic source text
to work from, and the filters of the software provided
were adequate in this case. What this meant was that
although I couldn't do all my translation work on
Linux, I could at least do some of it. And that's
exactly what I did, and I began documenting the experience
on my web site in the hope of attracting a little
OpenOffice.org (OOo) is my preferred word processor. It's an excellent product and Linux would be a lot worse off as a translation environment without it, but I don't use it as much as might be expected, since most of my translation work is done in OmegaT; OOo serves largely as a file filter and spelling checker in this process. I do use OOo for such things as writing invoices, and for creating PDF files. I use Abiword quite often for viewing word-processing files.
Firefox is still my preferred browser. I used Opera for a time and was also very happy with it. I'm also increasingly using Konqueror for browsing. That brings me to my favourites.
One of these is in fact the KDE desktop, which I find a wonderful working environment. It is difficult to pinpoint what is so good about it, since it isn't a discrete application. It has an integrated and consistent feel to it, and I find it very ergonomic and intuitive. This is perhaps why I'm increasingly using Konqueror as well as Firefox for browsing. Konqueror makes an excellent file viewer (providing quicker access to PDF files than Adobe Reader, for example), and I also use it as an FTP client, for example for maintaining my website. I use Kmail as an e-mail client for the same reason: it's so intuitive.
A big favourite of mine is tcl/tk. This is open-source but available for Windows and Mac as well as Linux. Without tcl/tk, I doubt I would have learnt to program.
I use NVU for editing web pages. No doubt alternative software exists with more features, but NVU is very straightforward and simple to use. Ksnapshot is nice for creating screenshots.
I still use command-line utilities
quite frequently, but I'm not really a command-line
"freak", and time permitting I sometimes write a GUI
in tcl/tk for my own purposes in order to automate
routines and to save me having to remember commands.
Many translators are already following this second approach. Some applications, notably Firefox, have achieved a substantial market share, amongst both translators and computer users as a whole. Users no doubt benefit from such products, but the fact that they are open source is largely irrelevant. Where they choose to do so, translators use Firefox simply because it's a better product. OpenOffice.org in particular is used by many translators alongside its counterpart, Microsoft Word, perhaps as a convenient way of producing PDF files or of handling corrupted MS Word files. A great many of these users wouldn't dream of abandoning Windows for Linux; nor is the fact that they are free to edit the source code of much interest to them.
Conversely, using a Linux system for
translation is a whole new experience. In this case,
the best advice is surely to try it. Linux generally
runs on the same hardware as Windows, so you can install
Linux on an old PC, though a better solution is probably
to buy a second hard drive for your existing PC and
install Linux on that. It needn't cost very much,
but it is worth doing a little homework first. Many
people make the mistake of trying to install Linux
on unsuitable hardware, or using an unsuitable distribution
(usually one that happened to be stuck to the cover
of a magazine they bought), or both. Pick your distribution
carefully (there's plenty of information available
on the Internet), and if you're using very old, very
new or particularly exotic hardware, don't be surprised
if some things (such as sound or modems) don't work.
Of course, "Linux" and "open-source" are not synonymous, and this is aninteresting point: translators are increasingly using open-source alternatives to commercial products, and using them on Windows, as already mentioned.
OmegaT is a classic case of this.
It is cross-platform and was not written specifically
for Linux. It made CAT tools available on Linux, but
I don't think it has been particularly instrumental
in persuading people to move to Linux. It has achieved
a certain degree of popularity in the past four years,
but the vast majority of users are in fact running
it on Windows.
OmegaT is also making a bigger impact upon the profession. The number of users is rising steadily, and both project and product are attracting the interest of potential user groups in a number of areas. OmegaT is now also being used for training in the principles of translation memory, for which it is ideally suited.
My role in the OmegaT project? Other
members of the team are no doubt eagerly reading this
in the hope of finding out what I actually do!
Now, Keith has semi-retired from the project and has handed over the function of Chief Developer to the very talented Maxym Mykhalchuk, with the support of other programmers, notably Henry Pijffers. Maxym runs a tight ship, and if I want to suggest a modification to OmegaT, I have to follow the proper procedure and submit a request through Sourceforge just like everyone else. So my influence upon the project has declined considerably, which is only to be expected, given that the project team now has upwards of 15 active members.
My main role in the early stages lay in liaising between the programmer, i.e. Keith, and the users, who besides myself initially only existed in theory. This key function in the project is now principally performed by Jean-Christophe Helary, who is largely responsible for keeping the project running on a day-to-day basis.
I do have certain secondary functions, notably co-ordinating the localization effort (which has been on hold during a major revamp of the documentation) and maintaining the OmegaT web site. Because of my association with the project from an early stage, I am involved in discussions concerning the direction the project is taking. The project is however refreshingly non-hierarchical: the acceptance of contributions is not determined by "management" or (worse) by a committee, but simply by whether other team members and users derive value from them. An example of this are the small pieces of code which I have contributed myself and which almost all users have chosen not to make any use of.
"Project manager" is not therefore a suitable title for my function. I hopethe other team members would see me as some kind of honorary president, but who knows, perhaps "project mascot" is what first springs to mind.
OSU: Marc, we really appreciate
your taking the time to share your experiences with
Please see some ads as well as other content from TranslationDirectory.com: