I presented a session about multilingual blogging at BlogCamp yesterday in Zürich. Thanks to all of you who attended (particularly as I was competing with Xing’s Nicolas Berg!) and wrote about the session (Bruno of course, Sarah, Sandra, Maira, Jens-Rainer, Waltraut, Jokerine, Antoine…let me know if I need to add you here), and to Greg in particular for filming the session.
Although I’m rather used to giving talks, this was the first time my audience was a bloggy-geek crowd, so it was particularly exciting for me. I prepared my talk on the train between Lausanne and Bern, and unfortunately prepared way too many notes (I’m used to talking with next to no notes), so I got a bit confused at times during my presentation — and, of course, left stuff out. Here’s a rough transcript of what I prepared. Oh, and don’t forget to look at this photo of my cat Bagha from time to time to get the whole “experience”.
Photo by Henning
In the beginning there was the Big Bang. Space, time and matter came to exist. (Physicists in the audience, please forgive me for this.) We know it might end with a Big Crunch. Internet looks a bit like this Big Crunch, because it gets rid of space. With the right link to click on, the right URI, anybody can be anywhere at any time.
However, we often perceive the internet as a kind of “space”, or at least as having some sort of organisation or structure that we tend to translate into spatial terms or sensations. One way in which the internet is organised (and if you’re a good 2.0 person you’re acutely aware of this) is communities.
Communities are like gravity wells: people tend to stay “in” them. It very easy to be completely oblivious to what is going on in other communities. Barrier to entry: culture. Language is part of a culture, and even worse, it’s the vehicle for communication.
What is going on in the other languageospheres? I know almost nothing of what’s going on in the German-speaking blogosphere. The borders on the internet are linguistic. How do we travel? There is no digital equivalent of walking around town in a foreign country without understanding a word people say. Note: cultural divides are a general problem — I’m trying to focus here on one of the components of the cultural divide: language.
Who speaks more than one language? In the audience, (almost) everyone. This is doubly not surprising:
- Switzerland is a multilingual country
- this is the “online” crowd (cosmopolitan, highly educated, English-speaking — though English is not a national language here)
Two episodes that made me aware of how strong language barriers can be online, and how important it is to encourage people to bridge the language barriers:
- launching Pompage.net because at the time of the browser upgrade initiative I realised that many French-speaking people didn’t have access to all the material that was available in Anglophonia, because they just didn’t understand English well enough;
- the very different feelings bloggers had about Loïc Le Meur when he first started being active in the blogosphere, depending on if they were French- or English-speaking, particularly around the time of the Ublog story.
A few questions I asked the audience (mini-survey):
- who reads blogs in more than one language? (nearly everyone)
- who blogs in more than one language?
- who has different blogs for different languages?
- who has one blog with translated content in both languages? (two courageous people)
- who has one blog with posts in various languages, mixed? (half a dozen people if my memory serves me right)
- who feels they act as a bridge between languages?
So, let’s have a look at a few multilingual blogging issues (from the perspective of a biased bilingual person). Despite the large number of people out there who are comfortable writing in more than one language (and the even larger number who are more or less comfortable reading in more than one language), and the importance of bridging cultural/linguistic gaps, blogging tools still assume you are going to be blogging in one language (even though it is now accepted that this language may not be English).
What strategies are there for using more than one language on a blog, or being a good bridge? Concentrate first on strategy and then worry about technical issues. Usage is our best hope to make tool development evolve, here.
A. Two (or more) separate blogs
- not truly “multilingual blogging”, it’s “monolingual blogging” twice
- caters well to monolingual audiences
- not so hot for multilingual audiences: must follow multiple blogs, with unpredictable duplication of content
B. Total translation
- a lot of work! goes against the “low activation energy for publiction” thing that makes blogging work (=> less blogging)
- good for multilingual and monolingual audiences
- technical issues with non-monolingual page (a web page is assumed to be in a single language…)
C. Machine translation!
- getting rid of the “effort” that makes B. fail as a large-scale solution, but retaining the benefiits!
- problem: machine translation sucks
- too imprecise, we don’t want more misunderstanding
D. A single blog, more than one language (my solution)
- easy for the blogger, who just chooses the language to blog in depending on mood, bridge requirements, etc.
- good for the right multilingual audience
- technical issues with non-monolingual pages
- how do you take care of monolingual audiences? provide a summary in the non-post language
“Monolingual” audiences are often not 100% monolingual. If the number of people who are perfectly comfortable writing in more than one language is indeed rather small, many people have some “understanding” skills in languages other than their mother tongue. Important to reach out to these skills.
For example, I’ve studied German at school, but I’m not comfortable enough with it to read German-language blogs. However, if I know that a particular post is going to be really interesting to me, I might go through the trouble of reading it, maybe with the help of some machine translation, or by asking a German-speaking friend.
A summary of the post in the language it is not written in can help the reader decide if it’s worth the trouble. Writing in a simple language will help non-native speakers understand. Making sure the number of typos and grammar mistakes are minimal will help machine translation be helpful. And machine translation, though it is often comical, can help one get the gist of what the post is about.
Even if the reader is totally helpless with the language at hand, the summary will help him know what he’s missing. Less frustrating. And if it’s too frustrating, then might give motivation to hunt down a native speaker or do what’s required to understand what the post is about.
Other bridging ideas:
- translation networks (translate a post or two a month from other bloggers in the network, into your native language)
- translation portal (“news of the world” with editorial and translation work done) — check out Blogamundo
Problem I see: bloggers aren’t translators. Bloggers like writing about their own ideas, they’re creative people. Translating is boring — and a difficult task.
Some more techy thoughts:
- use the
lang= attribute, particularly when mixing languages on a web page (and maybe someday tools will start parsing that)
- CSS selectors to make different languages look different (FR=pink, EN=blue for example)
- language needs to be a post (or even post element) attribute in blogging tools
- WordPress plugins:
language picker Polyglot and Basic Bilingual
- excerpt in another language: what status in RSS/atom? Part of the post content or not? Can RSS/atom deal with more than one language in a feed, or do they assume “monolingualism”?
- indicating the language of the destination page a link points to
The nice thing about having a blog is that you can dive back into time and watch your thinking evolve or take place. Here is a collection of posts which gravitate around language issues (in a “multilingual” sense). The Languages/Linguistics category is a bit wider than that, however.
Blogging in more than one language:
About the importance of language, etc.: