Handling Translation on the Web

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.

A post on Global Voices , showing how the site handles translations.
A post on Global Voices , showing how the site handles translations.

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?

 

Bizarre and Sad Recorded Station Annoucements

Ste complains that a steam train has caused delays to his commute.  I find it amazing and bizarre that the station or the rail company have seen fit to pre-record a message, saying that delays are caused by a steam train.  Is that a regular an occurrence?

One thing I have always thought particularly sad is that the rail companies have a pre-record for “due to a fatality on the line.”  It is clearly a frequent enough occurrence to be a necessary annoucement to have in the library, which is sad in itself.  And yet it also offends that something so serious and sombre should be delegated to the robotic system.  Perhaps I am being an old fashioned ‘digital immigrant‘, but it feels like the sort of thing that should be announced live.  I suppose it is a harsh thing to ask the station managers to do.

My worry stems from the fact that there is a cadence and a timbre to a real voice that a pre-record does not have.  When we cede these tasks to a machine, we lose a whole set of human interactions. We only notice this when the subject matter is something so exceptional as a death.

Is this just modernity? Am I being overly sentimental about routine and repetitive information? It is not as if most of these announcements are declarations of love or philosophical debates.

(See also: my piece ‘Encountering the Submerged‘ from almost exactly seven years ago, on the aftermath of a railway suicide I saw in Glasgow; and ‘The Best People Aren’t People‘ about non-human tweeters with personality).

How Going Digital Could Threaten Civil Society

Newsweek announces the digital transition
Newsweek announces the digital transition

Newsweek is going digital. Completely online.  No print product.  The Guardian is considering a similar move.

I admit I have bouts of sentiment for the printed page.  In general, however, I allow my head to rule my heart in thse matters.  The China Mieville quote I posted a few days ago persuades me that we don’t really need to fetishize print.

However, I think that two commentaries on this news from two of my favourite bloggers miss something in their enthusiasm for this transition. Continue reading “How Going Digital Could Threaten Civil Society”

Twitter Succumbs to Regulation

The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.

The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.

Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds. Continue reading “Twitter Succumbs to Regulation”

Retreat To The Corporate Silos

Here is a technology trend I have spotted: it may be old hat to experts and tech journalists, but its news to me.

First, I installed iOS 6 for my iPhone this week. As had been extensively trailed, Apple has switched out the Google Maps app for its own, proprietary mapping service. It is a weaker product.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from IFTTT (If This, Then That, an excellent tool that allows you to automate many tasks between online services, such as cross-posting blogs, auto-tweeting, or logging your social media activity). The e-mail said:

In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers, disabling your ability to push tweets to places like email, Evernote and Facebook.

This is really irritating, as I use IFTTT for many Twitter related tasks.

So, in a single week, I’ve been inconvenienced by the decision of two of the biggest brands in technology to stop co-operating with other services. There is no law that says that they must collaborate, of course, but this is still a dismal state of affairs. I wonder if these announcements might be the beginning of a new era of unco-operation, with more and more products becoming locked, proprietary, and incompatible with one another. I cannot see how this can be good for innovation, small businesses and start-ups in the sector, or the users… Though I do see how it might maximise revenue for the big companies.

The previous high-minded rhetoric that came from these companies makes their current revenue-maximising attitude all the more galling. It has become trite to point out how Apple has changed since it premiered its famous Nineteen Eighty-Four advert at the Superbowl; and Google’s motto was “do no evil”. These latest manœvres, retreating into the corporate silos, are a reminder of the corrupting influence of power and money, and puts one in the mind of the final passages of Animal Farm, when it becomes impossible to tell man from pig, pig from man.

I await deliverance with an iOS 6 Jailbreak.

How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports

Fleet Half Marathon
Fleet Half Marathon 2010. Photo by yrstrly on Flickr.

One thing that should be analysed when thinking about success of the Olympics is the broadcast. We should remember that for most people, the entire Olympic experience was mediated by the BBC. I think there is general agreement that they did excellent job – at least, a much better performance than during the Jubilee celebrations! This is obviously because it plays to the BBC’s strengths, reporting breaking news as it happened. Listening to the Olympic coverage on Radio 5 Live was not that different from listening to their usual Saturday afternoon coverage of Football League matches – and I mean that as a conpliment. That broadcast team in particular are already very experienced at juggling several outside broadcast units and reporters on location.

The corporation also did a good job at explaining the rules of many of the obscure sports to novice viewers.

Let us not forget that the BBC did have help from the Olympic Broadcast Service. This is a group of international broadcasters who together deliver the actual Olympic coverage (i.e. making sure we see people cross the line, not making sure Clare Balding interviews them afterwards).  Apparently the BBC was directly responsible for the rowing coverage, but the athletics was actually project managed by the Finnish broadcasters!

All this coverage was enhanced by some fantastic advances in digital technology. There were under water cameras in the swimming pool, boom cameras sweeping over action in the stadia, and cameras on wires tracking the action from above. There were ultra slow motion replays too, all of which led to an immersive experience.

So, what should we learn from all this? Well, obviously we can hope that TV sports coverage will improve across the board. Many of the clever techniques used during the Olympics should be deployed in other, domestic coverage.

But that is not what interests me. I am more interested in how the BBC (as by far the biggest broadcaster in the UK) can help to facilitate grassroots sport. If we accept the premise that much of the enthusiasm for previously obscure sports has come due to increase broadcast exposure, then the BBC could give those same sports a permanent structural boost by simply devoting more coverage to them all year round.

They can do this in two ways: first they can simply send cameras and reporters to cover major sporting events (they may need to do this anyway, to fill the airtime gaps left in the schedules as Premiership football and other highly popular sporting events are snapped up by Sky, Setanta, and ESPN).

Second, they can also do this by improving their online presence, to allow greater crowd sourcing and audience reporting of sporting events. This would enable them to provide coverage of regional and local sports – not just athletics and gymnastics, but non-league football and youth football as well. This will link the broadcaster’s output with communities and the localities that BBC is meant to serve, and should also inspire greater participation, and more people coming out to spectate. In this way, the Olympic spirit that the BBC generated over the past two weeks may be bottled and disseminated to local sports fields and even schools. Continue reading “How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports”

The Colour Palette of Children's Programmes

Baby Jake

The colour palette for children’s TV is very green, isn’t it?

There are two reasons for this.  One, many of the shows are set outside, which encourages kids to play outside too.  It is a shame that this is not a given, but there we go.

Second, many of the programmes mix live action with animation.  The easiest way to insert a person into a make-believe world, or bring an imaginary character into the real-world, is to use green-screen technology.  If there is lots of grass in the set (imaginary or otherwise) it makes the job of the CGI teams easier, and it makes the resulting product better.  It’s interesting that this technical requirement should mean that more programmes for kids are set outside.

In The Night Garden
In The Night Garden

Continue reading “The Colour Palette of Children's Programmes”

Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

I’ve just finished REAMDE, Neil Stephenson’s latest tome. It continues his tradition of book titles which look like words from the dictionary, but aren’t, like Cryptonomicon and Anathem. It also continues the welcome trope of being centred around geeky heroes: Lawrence Waterhouse (codebreaker) and Randy Waterhouse (programmer) in Cryptonomicon; Erasmus/Ras, the science-monk in Anathem.

All three books have elements of the thriller genre about them. In all three stories the main characters find themselves forced to trek halfway across the globe (and beyond) to save the world and their own lives. Furthermore, the protagonists use their skills to affect the outcome of their adventure. However, REAMDE compares unfavourably to the other two books, in that these technical skills are secondary to the more worldly talents of gun fighting. It therefore reads much more like a Tom Clancy process thriller, than a book that examines the implications of new ideas and technologies on how we think. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick”

How the Depiction of Technology in #Sherlock Captures the Zeitgeist

In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.

It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.

Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.

There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.

However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.