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Multilingual Crowdsourced Translation Enables Egypt to Be Heard around the World
Posted by Rebecca Ray on February 8, 2011  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization
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People have always wondered if any government would have the nerve to cut off internet access to all of its citizens after it had become an essential tool for business and personal communication. On January 27, it was confirmed that the answer was “yes,” as Egypt disappeared from the internet grid.

What Egypt experienced was different than what the Chinese government imposes with its great firewall of filters or the “squeezing of the pipes” that the Iranian government engaged in during the summer of 2009 (for an explanation of the differences and exactly what happened at the technical level, click here and here). With a few phonecalls to internet service providers, access to the internet and to mobile phones for 83 million people vanished in about 30 minutes on January 27 and remained that way until February 2.

During the blackout, videos started to appear on YouTube with instructions (in Arabic and set to music) on how to circumvent the shutdown. People resorted to landlines and fax machines, which the government had not cut off. Then, as the country started to come back online, people reached for their cell phones and began communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

Description: 2011.02.04 Thank you, FB.jpg

A key enabler to Egypt’s communication with the rest of the world during this unprecedented period has turned out to be multilingual crowdsourced translation. It is providing the conduit for text, audio, and images to be broadcast and understood worldwide on social media platforms in Arabic, English, and many other languages (see “Crowdsourced Translation,” Feb11).

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This multilingual crowdsourcing is also enabling more than “just translation.” A very important aspect of the protests is a true flourishing of expression in Arabic, Egyptian-style. However, this expression is very difficult to communicate in languages like English or German because the same modes simply don’t exist on a linguistic level to do so. Therefore, the people using social media to communicate from Egypt are attempting to reach across cultures to reveal the reality of what is happening through their local eyes and ears. This explains, for example, the etymology of the word “baltagiya,” which means “thugs” or “mercenaries.” It’s the Turkish word for “axe” (“balta”) with an Arabic suffix that renders the translation into English as something like “axe-wielders.” Or, translating the meaning of Arabic words into other languages, such as “shabab” meaning “young people” or “youth” in English.

Started by an American in Los Angeles at the beginning of the large-scale protests, #Jan25 on Twitter has grown to provide a multilingual voice, along with #Egypt and several other Twitter groups. Shown below is a snapshot of tweets appearing in four different languages on #Jan25 within the space of just 30 seconds:

Description: 2011.02.04 Tweets in 4 different languages on #jan25.jpg

The contributors to Speak to Tweet and Alive in Egypt are providing audio clips, along with transcriptions in Arabic, followed by translations into several languages:

Description: 2011.02.02 Speak2 us with audio, Arabic and ENG.jpg

Protesters in the street are using the most current and colloquial American and French of translations to get their message across in hopes that international broadcasters will make it through the restrictions and crackdowns to broadcast their messages worldwide. Pictured below are screengrabs from Al Jazeera on February 4 showing bilingual protest signs in English and Arabic aimed at international (and especially U.S.) media:

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Description: 2011.02.04 Signs in Arabic and English.jpg

Multilingual wordplay in French and Arabic:

Description: 2011.02.04 Multilingual wordplay.jpg

What is now taking place in Egypt is just the latest in a series of movements that have leveraged social media in countries like Iran, Moldova, Tunisia, and the Ukraine over the last few years. However, what is being chronicled in Egypt minute-by-minute shows how these platforms and their local equivalents (if allowed to do so by local authorities) can be used to better understand the important differences between what is happening now versus what may have happened in the past. Shown below are Christians forming a circle to protect Muslims as they pray:

Description: 2011.02.03 Xns protecting praying Muslims.jpg
Livestream coverage from satellite news channel Al Jazeera, along with social media sources such as text messaging, Twitter, yfrog, and YouTube may be disparaged by some pundits for reporting only what is happening in the moment. However, they also provide very important glimpses into how these moments and snapshots will meld together to form a new reality going forward. But, only if we can understand the tweets and buzz. That’s where crowdsourced translation currently plays a very important role.


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Keywords: Crowdsourced translation, Global social media, Translation

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