The Case for Lowering the Language Barrier in Tech

— 12 minute read

I jump between thoughts a lot. Here is a tiny portion of what has been on my mind lately:

  • How to start working towards "solving problems using technology, especially problems specific to developing countries or even more specifically, Indonesia".
  • Start contributing to open source.
  • Get back to learning French again. I've been reading a French article and watching a video in French every day to get my brain and ears used to it again.

This post is what happens when all of the three points above are meshed together.[1]

Recently, aside of doing technical contributions for open source projects, I also contributed to the Bahasa Indonesia translation of Array Explorer and Object Explorer. Both are awesome resources and I imagine if I were learning JavaScript for the first time, I'd love to have resources like both of them. It would be even better when they are available in my native language, because it means I have one less thing to think about (and struggle over). I can focus on the learning JavaScript part without worrying what exactly does "walking over an array" mean[2].

Some of you might think that learning English is easy. While writing or speaking with an impeccable grammar is hard, but at least it's easy for everyone to understand English as they go, right?

For some people, perhaps, yes. I used to think like that. Those who say yes to this question have probably been surrounded by English since forever. Although not everyone is actively learning it, they're constantly fed by English conversations, words, and terms. In some places like the big cities, you just can't escape it.

But what about those who go through their days without hearing a single English word uttered?

I never thought about this until I start learning French again. Our history, culture, and language bear very little resemblance to the French[3]. Unlike English (which is the lingua franca) and Dutch (with whom we shared a history with), it's very hard for me to come across something French in my daily life unless I really want to. In this case, I'm lucky because I have the privilege to do so: the Internet! French courses! French courses that have subscriptions to Science & Vie so I can read about the Higgs boson in French! C'est très facile!

In my mom's hometown that I visit every year, people do not even speak Bahasa Indonesia. Mostly they speak Minangnese (or is it Minangese?). Minangnese is like Bahasa Indonesia to them, and Bahasa Indonesia is pretty much like English to them. They only speak in Bahasa Indonesia when I'm around, the way my family would only speak in English when my relatives from abroad come for a visit (which is pretty rare).

Where is English? In my case, it's like learning French: feasible to do but you really have to get yourself into it... if you have the means to do so.

Now imagine that if suddenly, I don't know, over a war? French suddenly becomes the lingua franca... and every. Single. Documentation. And. Tutorial. In. This. World. Is. Suddenly. In. French. What would I do? I was going to say: I'm definitely going to flip.

Then I think of the kids who used to have their lunch in my aunt's warung, back in my mother's hometown. This has been their situation all this time.

Now why do I have to write such a long story? Isn't the fact that even we, Indonesians, who are counted as non-native speakers having to deal with another language is problematic enough? It already is. Despite those who say that "learning English is easy nowadays, there is an ample of resources", it's not. Not for everyone, at least. It also just hit me that this problem is even worse when we take into account the fact that a large part of Indonesia does not even speak Bahasa Indonesia primarily. It's like they have more layers to go through to get to where I am now. Where you are now. If you can comprehend my rambling to some extent, congratulations. Really. Congratulations! You're lucky. I'm lucky. We're so goddamn lucky, because there's a large part of Indonesians who are left out from all these "technological advances" and buzzwords you and I have become accustomed with. So many people are left out, and there is a possibility that there so many problems that will be left untouched. And the problem is not as easy as "Indonesian -> English": it's even more complicated than that.

Here's the caveat, which I also acknowledge: language barrier--the one I'm writing about here--is just a tiny part of the equation. When speaking about making tech more accessible to people, especially Indonesians, this is not a problem that can be solved by merely doing translations: there's the infrastructure problem, for example[4]. There are probably many other problems that I'm not aware of yet. However, I think lowering the language barrier is one of the ways to solve this problem. It's probably not the perfect solution either, but I think it could be useful in some way. It's a start. It's better than doing nothing at all!

My main point is, if you consider yourself a techie and you love languages, I think doing translations is something that you'll find fun and very, very rewarding. Depending on how you do it, it probably won't take much of your time. Sometimes I do it when I'm waiting for my program to compile, or when installing a package that takes ages, or when I feel like I'm too tired to do anything else. It's a more rewarding alternative than scrolling through social media mindlessly (which I still do, not gonna lie, but I'm trying to do less of that now).

What's in it for you permalink

Why is it beneficial for you, the translators?

First, you get to learn about the technical matters you're writing about as you go. When reading documentations, sometimes I just skip to the parts that I think I need. To be honest, sometimes I do not even read the entire sentence. Not so much when translating documentations! You do not need to complete an entire document in one go, but you still need to translate every word in a sentence.

"Huh, but anybody can do a translation. It doesn't make me special," one might say. It's possible for people who have no understanding (and leave still with no understanding) of what they're translating to accomplish the task. But from what I've noticed, it tends to be a hit-or-miss--sometimes the text won't make sense from a technical standpoint. Even worse, mistranslations on a contextual level can happen. Thus, aside of knowledge on the language itself and on the techincalities of translating, the technical knowledge of the technology you're translating about is just as valuable.

However, this shouldn't scare those who feel like they do not have the technical knowledge yet. The most important thing is you're trying to understand it as you go.

If you're a language enthusiast too, bonus brownie point: you get to know more about both languages (the language you're translating from and to). Every day, I'd stumble upon new English and Indonesian words. I didn't know that the word "browser" now has its own equivalent, perambah.

If you're a writer, you'll see improvements in your writing. Most English documentations are very well-written. If you're into technical writing, since most documentations are created with beginners in mind, it is a good way to practice writing beginner-friendly and concise texts. It's an art of its own, I guess, and not an easy thing at all.

How do I start? permalink

I started out by translating Mozilla Development Network (MDN) pages, because they already have a nice tool to make the whole translation process easier. You just need to sign up for a Mozilla network account if you don't have one yet, and then you can get started on working!

You can also find projects that you're interested in on GitHub, and see whether they need help for translation.

Tips, tricks, and tools for English-Indonesian translation permalink

I'm not a professional translator in any way. My translations are not perfect--sometimes I'm still conflicted on whether I should settle in using English words (such as "browser") which are more common, or start the habit of using Indonesian words (such as "perambah") which may be less common and even less recognizable than its English counterpart (if you have any advice on this, please let me know!).

However, below are some tricks or tools that I've found to be helpful:

  • Sederet, for Indonesian-English and English-Indonesian quick lookup. Sometimes I just forget words and this is very handy.
  • KBBI, because oftentimes I do really need to check if a word is a Bahasa Indonesia word or not. I just found out that the word "web" is already in KBBI and thus we no longer need to italicize it.
  • If you have some knowledge of another language, this is for you: I find it helpful to peek at the translation of another language that I understand, such as French. Sometimes I hit a dead-end on how to translate a sentence or expression because it wouldn't make sense when translated to Bahasa Indonesia. So what I do is I'd go to the French translation of the text and see how the translator expresses it. Most of the time it works (and it improves my French comprehension as well, so yay). If it doesn't, then I'll go improvise on my own.

A note for myself permalink

I think it's time for me start taking part in making more knowledge accessible to people, especially Indonesians. This is quite scary to me. Although my English is in no way perfect, I'm really awkward when it comes to writing in Bahasa Indonesia. I think I can get over this by reading more blogs in Bahasa Indonesia, such as Ivan Lanin's blog.

A few concrete to-dos:

  • Continue contributing to MDN pages.
  • Jump into any open source project I'm also interested in if they need help translating (why only those I'm interested in--because I can't do every single project and motivation helps!).
  • Make this blog bilingual, and see possibilities of cross-posting the Indonesian version of my technical post(s) to local websites.

I was going to publish this blog when I've finished translating it... but I guess I'll just leave this here and try to finish the translation ASAP.

I wrote this draft in the course of a few weeks (I'm such a slacker) and over the past few days I've accidentally (and gladly!) stumbled upon several related videos or podcasts on the same topic:

  • Mariko Kosaka's "Re-inventing the Rosetta Stone Together", which talks about how the open source environment can welcome non-native English speakers to their projects (doing translation is one of the ways, but there are many other ways too!)
  • There are others, but I'll have to go through my bookmarks to find them. Will update as soon as I get them.

  1. My head is a fun place. ↩︎

  2. Of course, there are a lot of terms (such as "array") that are probably not available in Indonesian. It seems that we are not alone, as the Portuguese and Spanish translations for Array Explorer also use "array" instead of its native counterpart. Meanwhile, the French translation chooses to use the word "tableau" to replace "array". Regardless, I think translation will cut a large amount of time needed to comprehend a text even with some terms still "not translated". ↩︎

  3. Welp, I don't have the data to back up this statement, nor am I an expert in this matter. I'm saying this from my perspective as an Indonesian learning French--never have I ever encountered a "eureka" moment in which I was able to make a connection between an Indonesian and a French word, aside of cadeau (but then again it turns out that there's also cadeau in Dutch...) and coup d'État. A quick fact-check though returns the information that around 10,000 words in Indonesian language can be traced to the Dutch language, and even without fact-checking we Indonesians must have heard/felt it too at some point in our lives. On the contrary, we do not have many loanwords from the French language which kind of makes sense because we do not have much shared history anyway. Compare this phenomenon to the Vietnamese language--when I was there I had a lot of "huh that does sound/look like a French word" moment. I should probably stop here. ↩︎

  4. Yes, probably my cousin in my mom's hometown won't be able to discover the pages I've translated right now because he doesn't even have a decent Internet connection. But I seriously hope that one day this will no longer be a problem and by the time that day comes, everyone in Indonesia already has the necessary resources (such as translated documentations and tutorials) available for them to read. I have a dream... ↩︎