screen shot of language selector in Firefox for Android

Mozilla has launched an ambitious campaign to localize its open source web browser, Firefox, into hundreds of languages so that as many people as possible can have access to a device that speaks their own language. Firefox is already available in 90 languages, but this still leaves 60% of the global online population without web access in their native languages. So Mozilla is using teams of volunteer localizers and staff to translate the more than 40,000 words in its computer web browser and 19,000 in its mobile version into hundreds of other languages. With an estimated 3,570 languages in the world with writing systems, they have their work cut out for them.

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Mozilla’s online localization tool Pontoon has a list of 169 languages that are currently in the process of translation, including many you may have never heard of, like Acholi (Uganda, Southern Sudan), Iloko (Philippines), Maithili (Nepal, Northern India), and Songhay (Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria).

But translating hundreds of computer terms like cache, cookie, and timeout is no easy matter with languages whose speakers have historically been fishermen, farmers and livestock herders. Normally, these populations wouldn’t have much experience with or need for computers and, therefore, no need for this type of vocabulary. But the spread of cheap smartphones has changed all that. Now it is relatively easy for the web to come to even isolated villages.

The Economist reported on some of the creative translations their volunteers have come up with:

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.

As a non-profit, Mozilla doesn’t have to care about immediate returns and can lead the way in localization into more obscure languages. In doing so, Mozilla is not only making its browser accessible to more and more people, it is creating a multilingual data bank of thousands of computer terms that can be extremely valuable for future localizers and linguists. As The Economist put it, “the Firefox OS will create a sort of global Rosetta stone.”

This is also another way in which technology may help to save some endangered languages. As David K. Harris of the Living Tongues Institute said in an interview with MTM LinguaSoft, seeing their language online can help deter younger speakers of microlanguages from simply abandoning their language, because it shows that their language “is a viable player in the information age.”

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