Translators "sprint" to knock down Wikipedia language barriers

6:21 min

How you keep the global information superhighway moving? 

By trying to overcome language obstacles that can get in the way. On the open source encyclopedia, Wikipedia, you can find articles written in some 285 languages. The most common by far is English with 4.6 million articles. After that, guess what the most common language on the website is.

It's Swedish. But there are still less than half as many articles in Swedish as there are in English. The foundation behind the encyclopedia wants to make it easier to contribute and share material in different languages, and one of the ways they do this is by translating the software contributors use behind-the-scenes. 

The 1965 comedy "I'll Take Sweden", starring the American funny man Bob Hope, got panned by the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote that it couldn't be duller. Nevermind that - the movie has its own Wikipedia entry, but as of the beginning of the year at least, it is one of many articles only available in English.

With the long-term goal of making articles available in more languages, the folks behind the open source encyclopedia want to make it easier for contributors who speak different languages to use the software that helps them add and share information.

"If you see these really, really creaky messages in English . . . this will maybe scare you off completely from the website," says John Andersson, a project manager at Wikimedia Sweden.

He and his colleagues have invited volunteers to a "translation sprint" to the Royal Institute of Technology to spend a couple hours to learn how to translate the software. Andersson is preparing in a big conference room, which is becoming fragrant with the coffee and buns he's setting out – big piles of them, which belie his expectations for the turn-out today. He's hoping a handful of people will show up.

Two people come: Martin, from a high school nearby - he's already done some translating for the open-source web browser Mozilla Firefox, and Viktor, whose studying biotechnology and who is doing something like this for the first time.

Viktor says he likes Wikipedia because it's constantly being updated, and he says that daily, he visits the free online encyclopedia. It has used crowd-sourcing so effectively that it has become one of the ten most visited websites in the world.

What he and Martin will be doing today should make it easier later for Swedish contributors to the website to write articles and also draw on information from Wikimedia Commons, which is the vast library of photos and other material that they can use when making an entry. 

It's not just simple buttons like that which need translating, but also other messages you might see when contributing to the site - some of them are pretty obscure and would be gibberish to the layman. You come across phrases like database-replicated-cluster and s-maxage, but as John Andersson goes through some of them, he explains he isn't shy about passing on the more difficult ones.

The process is pretty tedious - or meditative, depending on how you look at it. Viktor admits, "Maybe this is not my ideal role, but I find it rewarding just to help out."

And whether all this effort will make it more likely for forgotten movies of the 60s - or other information - to get their own entries in different languages, remains to be seen.