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Open Source Update: Questions and Answers with Marc Prior

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Corinne McKay photoQuestions 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?

Marc Prior: I don't mind being called "Mr. Linux (for translators)" ? if no one else wishes to claim the title! Three years ago, it might still have been justified, as there were few other translators using Linux and even fewer who could claim to be as familiar with the full range of relevant software as I was. Today, the situation is different, and there are plenty of translators who know as much as if not more than I do about using Linux for translation.

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 publicity.

OSU: What is your normal working computer environment? Do you use Linux, Windows, or both? What is your preferred Linux distribution?

MP: My normal and in fact only working computer environment is SuSE Linux (at present, version 10, which is installed on two desktops and one laptop in my office). I haven't used Windows at all since around 2002. I've tried other Linux distributions, notably Icepack and Knoppix, and also Mandrake and Ark Linux, but I've always come back to SuSE Linux.

OSU: What are some of your favorite open source applications that other translators might be interested in?

MP: I use a tremendous number of different applications and couldn't possibly list them all here. "Favourite" and "most often used" are also two different things. OmegaT is in both categories, needless to say, since I'm closely involved in the project and use it for virtually all translation work. (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.

OSU: What advice would you offer to other translators who would like to use more free and open source software in their work?

MP: I think there are essentially two approaches here. One is to begin with an open-source system, i.e. GNU/Linux, and to see what tasks can be accomplished using it. The other is to use free and/or open-source alternatives to existing applications where the opportunity is available.

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. 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.

OSU: What do you think is standing between the translation/localization industries and more widespread use of FOSS?

MP: In early 2004, I conducted a mini-survey on one of the main translators' portals into why people hadn't considered using Linux. The main reasons given were:
Generally satisfied with Windows: 28.41%
Linux is difficult: 2.27%
Risk of compatibility problems with customers: 27.27%
Limited choice of applications: 7.95%
No other users to get advice from: 10.23%
Would like to try it but don't have time: 18.18%
Tried it, didn't like it: 0%
Own shares in Microsoft: 0%
What's Linux?: 3.41%
Other: 2.27%

These results show that dissatisfaction with Windows isn't perhaps as much of an issue as we think it is, considering that 28% are satisfied with Windows and a further 18% not sufficiently dissatisfied to make the time to try Linux. Compatibility remains a big issue. However, Linux appears not to be perceived as difficult: instead, it is the unavailability of help from friends and colleagues that is much more of an issue. This is changing as Linux acquires greater visibility in the profession, and in fact it has changed substantially even since I conducted my mini-survey.

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.

OSU: We know that you're very involved in the OmegaT project; can you tell us a bit about where the project is right now, and about your role specifically?

MP: This is a very exciting time for OmegaT, because the current 1.6 series is proving immensely popular with users. The information we have suggests that the number of people using OmegaT has doubled over the last few months alone. Long-standing users of OmegaT who have followed its progress over the last two years will know that the program is now simply getting the attention it deserves. But translators who haven't used OmegaT since the last stable release (1.4.5), or perhaps even longer, may be surprised at how mature it has now become.

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!
In 2002, when Keith Godfrey revived the project, the division of responsibilities was clear. Keith did the programming; I did everything else: proposing new features, testing, documentation, publicity, etcetera.

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 our readers.

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