One of my bugbears is the widespread failure of website creators to construct their code (well, technically markup) properly. Back in 2005, Creative Review awarded me ‘Star Letter‘ for my critique of the pretty but entirely inaccessible websites that were being held up as the pinnacle of design. “The web is a medium in itself, not a metaphor for print.”
Readers of this blog will know how irritated I get with the quality of parliamentary and government papers online. Transcripts and other documentation are frequently uploaded as PDFs, as if the only thing a researcher or campaigner plans to do with the document is print it. The online version of the Houses of Parliament Hansard still retains references to columns and pages, and linking to excerpts of text is a laborious process.
So imagine my delight to see the launch of Say It, a new tool from MySociety. It provides a tool to put transcripts of debates, court cases, and official inquiries online. The tool has been launched with a searchable, linkable version of the Leveson Inquiry sessions.
It is this sort of thing that empowers grassroots campaigns and catalyses democracy. And by ‘democracy’, I don’t just mean voting, but the idea that citizens make the decisions together.
This means that the author and users can link to specific paragraphs in a piece of online text.
This functionality is extremely useful when dealing with long screeds of text. Someone may quote a bon mot, but if you follow the link to where the writer says the quote came from, you often have to trawl through many paragraphs to find the quote and check the context. If a site has anchors, or id attributes embedded in the HTML, the person creating the link can send the reader to the exact paragraph in the text.
This is a very old technique, one that has been present in HTML since its earliest incarnations. But few people use it routinely on their webpages. This plugin offers an easy way to alleviate that inefficiency! Continue reading →
Browsing through the Global Voices ‘Most Read in 2012‘ articles, I noticed for the first time the effort that the site makes to accomodate multiple languages.
First, each article has a header saying ‘this post is also available in…’ Then, within the text, any quotes are presented in their original language, followed by a translation. This article on a Citizens’ Basic Income initiative in Switzerland is a good example.
Such efforts always introduce a design problem. The foreign language breaks the ‘flow’ of the text, much like a banner advert in the middle of an an article. On the Global Voices pages, the designers have made some slight attempt to slightly de-emphasise the original text in favour of the English translation. However, the long list of alternative languages at the tope of the article presents a barrier to actually reading the text, even when the type size is small.
Technical advances could help solve this problem. Automated tools like Google Translate allow you to put a rudimentary translation behind a single mouse click (you can read this very blog post in French, Arabic, Chinese or Hindi, for example).
However, it strikes me that some development of HTML standards to accomodate alternative languages would help. It is possible to embed extra data into any piece of text on a website. I ranted a bit last month about how quotes and links should include citation information within their code. The abbreviation tag (<abbr>) typically allows the writer to include more information for the reader, about a particluar acronym. An example of this feature in action: HTML.
It would be great if a ‘translation’ tag or an ‘original language’ tag were made available in HTML. Then, any given piece of text could be directly associated with any alternative language translations. This would allow web designers or app creators to display the translations in the way most appropriate to their content. It would also give readers the flexibility to show or hide the orginal language text.
Translation is a highly cultural and political act. How a piece of text is translated matters, and the nuance and tone imposed on the text by a sympathetic or antagonistic translator can have huge consequences. Technical innovations that allow the original and translated texts to be compared easily would mean more transparency, greater international and inter-cultural understanding, and perhaps even help students to learn foreign languages, and the art of translation. It may also help unify projects like Wikipedia, where there are almost three-hundred encyclopædias evolving in disparate directions.
Does anyone know if there has been any work or research done on this subject?
Excuse me if I go off on a technical rant for a moment. I find it very irritating when people don’t use HTML mark-up properly. I can forgive the occasional user, or those relying on WYSIWYG editors, but for large, professionally coded websites, there is no excuse for mark-up which does not apply standards correctly.
What has vexed me so? The Houses of Parliament website. In many ways this is a great resource. They offer video of parliamentary debates, and the Hansard of the previous day’s proceedings is posted promptly the following moring. However, the underlying mark-up is flawed. Continue reading →