Thursday, May 19, 2011

Canonicals Launchpad streamlines translation

If you’re a native English speaker like me, you may not think very often about what it takes to make software available in a language you understand. For the rest of the world, however, translation is a big deal — especially in the open source ecosystem, where few projects have the resources to pay professional translators. Luckily, recent changes in Launchpad have made it easier for developers to integrate translations into Ubuntu. Here’s the scoop, and why it matters more than you might think.
In the open source world, where programmers dot the planet, English tends to serve as a lingua franca among the people writing the code. This practice may work well enough for developers who need to communicate with one another, but it’s not a solution for users who cannot or prefer not to use their software in a language that is not their native tongue.
As I’ve written in the past, Ubuntu has an impressive track record when it comes to addressing the linguistic diversity of users. Since anyone can easily contribute translations to Ubuntu and most other open source projects, the operating system is able to attain a range of linguistic availability that far outshines that of proprietary platforms, which are rarely available in niche languages whose speakers are not numerous enough to make a translation investment financial feasible.

Streamlining Translations

Nonetheless, until Ubuntu is completely translated into the native language of everyone in the world — which is more or less impossible, not only for want of resources but also because the relative arbitrariness of linguistic distinctions means there are theoretically as many languages on the planet as there are individuals — there is always room for improvement.
To this end, Launchpad developers recently announced new tools aimed at streamlining the sharing of translations between upstream projects and their mirrors on Launchpad. As the Launchpad blog explains:
What’s changed today is that strings from upstream projects who make their translations outside Launchpad are now just as easily imported and ready for use by Ubuntu.
Now, so long as the upstream project is set up in Launchpad to do this, a change made in an upstream project’s source code — whether hosted directly in Launchpad or elsewhere in Bazaar, Git, Subversion of CVS — will be available to Ubuntu translators just a few hours later.
Previously, Ubuntu took translation templates and files from the source packages as they were uploaded. There was no automated route for those new upstream translations to get into Ubuntu after that initial import. In effect, this allowed Ubuntu translations to diverge from upstream during the six month Ubuntu cycle.
The blog adds that the new initiative bears the additional benefit of helping to keep Ubuntu’s translations of strings within software applications consistent with those used upstream. This change will both reduce redundancy in translation work and make it easier to maintain software by ensuring users are presented with the same translations regardless of whether they’re using Ubuntu’s build of a particular application or one they got from somewhere else.

Why It Matters

To return to a point made above: If you’re a native speaker of English, or at least fluent enough in the language to work in it readily, translations might not appear very important. But for the millions of Ubuntu users who can’t read English, or who feel they should be able to use computers in the languages of their choice, absent or low-quality translations can make open source platforms such as Ubuntu a non-option.
And beyond users, developers and marketers of software are also affected by language issues in ways they may not often consider. This is particularly true in the open source world, where VARs hoping to resell a software package may face an artificially limited market if the original developers do not provide sufficient translations and the VARs can’t supply them themselves. (On the other hand, perhaps translations represent an area where VARs could easily add value to an existing software package, although I can’t think of any concrete examples of this being done in practice.)
The extent to which Ubuntu developers are able to collaborate with upstream projects on making sure the best translations reach users with the least effort possible, then, has ramifications that stretch across the open source ecosystem. The new Launchpad tools are good news for everyone interested in developing, reselling or simply using open source code. Source: