Bill Poser at Language Log describes a project to translate Free Software into the eleven official languages of South Africa, giving the following excellent quote from an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Dwayne Bailey hears the question all the time. “Why bother translating software into isiZulu?” people ask him. “Who needs it? English is the language of global business — you’d be better off spending your energy teaching people English. To which Mr. Bailey replies, quite simply, “Izixhobo kufuneka zisebenzele abantu, hayi abantu izixhobo. Isoftware sisixhobo ngoko ke kumele sisebenzele abantu ngolwimi lwabo lwasemzini!

For translation, see Bill’s post.


  1. “Who needs it? English is the language of global business — you’d be better off spending your energy teaching people English.”
    Hoo boy! That struck a nerve. I just had an argument with someone on the VP level who used a similar line to argue against translating a major piece of software…into French…I need a drink now.

  2. Cool story–thanks.

  3. So you can’t learn a language but still want software in your own language?

  4. wolfangel: So you can’t learn every language in the world but still want their literature translated into yours?

  5. Touche (no accent on the final “e” due to absence of French characters)–learning even one language well is difficult.

  6. glyptodont says

    To those who insist that people adapt to software as-is, language and all, I would ask: If all the hammers in the world didn’t fit your hand, would you break your hand to fit the hammer?

  7. My Zulu needs refreshing. But he does have a great point and he delivered it perfectly. I’d like to know the reaction after he said that. I can only imagine what their faces looked like.

  8. I can’t believe Eliza hasn’t commented here; instead, she’s over in the Cape Breton thread repeating things for emphasis. Yoo hoo, Eliza!

  9. Even if I thought all Zulu speakers ought to learn English, it would be very useful to have a Zulu-fied operating environment. What else am I going to run my Zulu->English teaching software on?
    Anyway, it is MUCH more efficient in human effort for a few competent Zulu speakers to translate free software properly for all other Zulu speakers, than for all Zulu speaking users to learn English imperfectly. This leverage of human brainpower is the greatest thing about computers!
    PS: these guys clearly should be running Ubuntu Linux.

  10. ngiyafundile isiZulu, kotwa angithathi!
    Zulu (and xhosa and Swazi and all the nguni-bantu languages) is such a subject-specific language that I used to say it was the perfect language for German philosphy. Good things will come of this.

  11. On a related note, right now I’m finding myself pissed off about work in the Esperanto movement to translate to Esperanto. Why can’t they contribute morally or financially to projects like this? After all, Esperanto is no one’s (exclusive) native language, and it is spoken mostly by people into whose language Free Software has already been translated. It seems unfair that while many Esperantists are fulfilling their cultish urge to show Esperanto as the One Sole Language Worth Using, important localisation projects like these don’t get much appreciation by them.
    An ironic twist is that when minority language speakers use the English version, they become so used to its terminology that when a localised version is released, they find its translation odd and even ridiculous. I know plenty of Europeans who continue to use the English version of, for example, Windows even though a local version has long been available.

  12. I concur with Stephen’s comment regarding the relative efficiency of writing software in the Zulu. Besides, any effort to make a technology available to Zulu speakers contributes to the survival of this languae and culture.
    Any news on software in the Basque or Irish?

  13. Chris Culver, what’s got up you? Are you upset because, say, the Esperanto translators work for you and they aren’t getting their work done while they play with translating OO.o? Or are they supposed to be cleaning their rooms? Why exactly should you care who spends their own time doing what?

  14. Could I wax contrary for a bit?
    (Contrary, come over here and let me wax you.)
    I agree that it’s a fine thing for Zulu-speakers to have an operating system, or software, or whatever, in the language they love and speak. On the other hand, though, I know some sociolinguists (notably Fishman) would say the following:
    1. Minority populations generally have, in comparison to the larger languages of the world, precious few resources to develop to promoting their language, or at least to ensure that the core of speakers does not get whittled away by linguistic assimilation.
    2. Devoting these resources to translating hugely popular software into their own minority language might just smooth the path for these minority-language speakers to immerse themselves in an international, computer culture which (in the long run) encourages only the large languages in any case.
    That is, a Zulu Microsoft Word might give a huge psychological rush, and a dollop of convenience, but it’s only temporary, and one might wonder if there’s any chance that Zulu speakers would be more likely to speak Zulu given the availability of software in that language.
    (I should note that I know nothing about Zulu. It could be that Zulu is doing just fine, and can afford such luxuries [according to this theory] as software in the language. If so, more power to it! If that’s the case, replace Zulu with whatever other endangered minority language you know and love. [Yiddish, anyone?])
    3. In that case, lovers of Zulu (or Insert Endangered Minority Language Here) would be advised to spend their time encouraging other folks to speak Zulu, raise families in Zulu, establish Zulu-speaking communities, etc.
    I’m not sure whether I entirely agree with this approach, but, again, please take this comment in the ignorant spirit of contrariness in which it is offered.
    Contrary, you are now waxed.

  15. Michael Farris says

    I’ll doubt that computers threaten languages the size of Zulu when Estonians switch to Russian or Finnish because there’s so much more software in those languages.
    Of course Estonian and Zulu are in very different positions, Estonians live in a continent that encourages the development of indigenous national languages and Zulus live in a continent that encourages the abandonment of indigenous languages in favor of the ‘benefits’ of colonial languages (so that the inhabitants of the countries are by and large not in charge of their own national languages).

  16. ZSB, you found a supporter
    [aside – it is a sad picture and sure sign of decline of the premises, when people start bow/curtsey for their attempts of contrariness…]

  17. Speedwell, when some Esperantists act like Esperanto is to be preferred to real languages and ignore language diversity, they make the public assume all speakers of Esperanto agree. I don’t, I think Esperanto should be a last resort if two people don’t have a common real language. Therefore, it has no place in computing, since people should be able to use software in their own native language. When people waste their time on something unnecessary, while they at the same time give the impression that I, who until recently spoke Esperanto quite often, am a member of some sort of cult, one can understand that I wouldn’t be pleased.

  18. Michael Farris says

    I can understand Mr. Culver’s pique (I used to be upset that esperanto letters were included in Latin-3 while Vietnamese letters, which I had to work with, weren’t and required a lot of tedious workarounds. (Inter alie, tial mi preferas la ho-metodo por skribi esperanton vortojn kiel ekzemple ‘chu’, ‘danghera’ kaj ‘shi’ (kun uzo de – en vortoj kiel flug-haveno) sen neceso de specialaj literoj, kiuj ne ekzistas en nacilingvoj)
    But on the other hand, translating software is a pretty harmless pasttime and criticising it seems misplaced (I myself wish that more esperanto speakers would find ways of using the language practically rather than esoterically).

  19. I’m all in favour of translating into Zulu or any minority language, for that matter.
    Even Cornish …….
    Certain languages by virtue of their size, are monopolising the web, which is one of the most important vehicles of communication today. If we don’t make the resources of the net accessible to those who are unable to speak one of these languages, we prevent a group of people who may be fiercely proud of a disappearing heritage from accessing the resources of the net. This might even threaten the existence of these cultures.
    What I’d like to see next would be translation into English regional dialects ….. Software in Cockney, Geordie or Brummie would be a good start.

  20. hey hey an afrique yawdy
    im a Tanzanian bwaay lokin sumody help me isizulu
    hey plz assist me in doin that
    cumooon my mail aghaa000@hotmailcom

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