Mozilla and Localization Efforts: The Economist’s “Cookies, caches and cows”

The Economist recently published an interesting article, “Cookies, Cache and Cows” from Bamako, Mali on Mozilla’s localization efforts for its web-browser and its (soon-to-be?) mobile operating system. Given my own research on literacy practices in Manding-speaking West Africa, I was excited to see a focus of the article be on the Sahel and Mali’s dominant Manding variety, Bambara. I did some follow-up investigating to better understand Mozilla’s localization (also known as L10n) efforts and in particular those going on for Manding.

Basically, Mozilla has a dedicated website on their wiki for those interested in starting their own localization efforts. This is pretty cool given that my efforts at soliciting information about localization and script-/font-support for Android for instance has lead me down a rabbit-hole of websites that seem to be addressed primarily to computer programmers. While the Mozilla site does make it seem that some basic web and computer literacy is required, they also have website (supposedly this is Pootle server) that allows L10n teams (e.g., groups of people volunteering time to translate the thousands of terms that a user encounters while using Mozilla’s Firefox browser for instance) to collaborate remotely on doing translations of Mozilla’s various interfaces (its OS, its browser etc.)

I signed up for an account on this Pootle server website and messaged the administrators to gain permission to work on the N’ko (or nqo in some internal coding reference) effort as well as the Bambara (bm) effort. From what I understand these Pootle server hosted sites represent the actual work done by the L10n teams which Mozilla likes to have listed and managed through individual team sites on their wiki.

While The Economist article is written from Bamako, Mali and even includes some written Manding in it (A ka ɲi? – ‘Is it good?’) they seem to gloss over the fact that efforts for localizing Mozilla products into Manding are rather stagnant.

For instance, the N’ko effort (which appears not to be unified; its L10n team is listed under the abbreviation man, but it’s Pootle project is listed under nqo) for the upcoming release of Firefox for instance stands at 8% or 3,441 of 43,602 “words” needed to be translated. Words isn’t an entirely appropriate term; they are actually referring to individual phrases (speech acts?!) which often include multiple words. In Mozilla parlance these are actually called strings. The Bambara team’s effort is listed as having completed 0% of the project. This isn’t strictly accurate as the team has suggested 6 potential string translations but not finalized any of terms.

That’s actually one of the cool features of the Pootle Server; for each individual string (of words) to be translated individual team members can submit a translation, suggest a translation, comment or accept or reject proposed translations. Most importantly perhaps, you can also view the history of a word/phrase so no suggestions or debates regarding terms are lost. See the picture below to get a quick idea of how this looks and works:

A sample entry for the N'ko project
A sample entry for the N’ko project

Obviously not all of the 40,000 strings are of equal importance for your everyday Mozilla user. Many strings will never be seen by most users. Phew. As such, Mozilla has its strings divided into various phases that seemed to related to their primary function for a user and has assigned different priority levels to these phases so that L10n teams can appropriately focus their translation efforts instead of staying up for months on end typing until they develop some strange nerve problem in the hands and wrists that threatens to derail their entire career. For instance.

While my post seems to suggest that Manding-language localization efforts are minimal, that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to efforts from the N’ko activist community. Despite being a non-Latin and non-Arabic script invented in 1949, N’ko has unicode standardization, an iPhone/iPad app, is native to Windows 8, has an extension for being read on Firefox on Android and can easily be installed and written on Mac (which is how I typically do so). And all of this has come essentially from the tireless effort of grassroots N’ko students and scholars from Africa who have dedicated themselves to promoting a cause that they believe in. Perhaps it is just that the N’ko community has focused it’s efforts on these other platforms thus far. Or maybe as my own experience studying and working with N’ko activists in New York City, Bamako, Kankan and Bobo-Dioulasso suggests that they in fact have been focusing their efforts on promoting the actual use of their script for reading and writing Manding.

I think that this is one of the major issues missing from The Economist piece and talk of localization and translation for people in general. The Economist simply assumes that supposedly illiterate farmers will be “benefit more” from being online if they can do so in their own tongue. But what about the millions of West Africans for instance that speak an African language in daily life but seamlessly use a phone in French without lamenting the lack of Manding-language interface or content? Of course, having an interface in a local language is useful in the push to promote literacy and education in other languages besides French, English, Mandarin etc., but The Economist glosses over the fact that people have to actually want to be educated and literate in a language for localization efforts to actually succeed in gaining a user base.

Localization then must be part and parcel of wider efforts to change the social value attached to a certain language or way of speaking. Mozilla itself can do little in this sense, but I do think that their effort to promote and facilitate localization for those that want it is something that will contribute to the cause of local language literacy and education and that, well, a ka ɲi.

PS – I’ve ignored a lot of other issues that go into the L10n teams efforts such as so-called standardization and the attempted codification of neologisms and a standard register that it requires. It’s particularly interesting to think about how this kind of stuff plays out in wiki-style localization efforts since in the case of Western languages like English or French, for instance, school serves as the disseminator of this standard and is accompanied by implicit and explicit comments that serve naturalize our belief in it being in fact the standard if not in fact the language itself. For African languages such as Manding there isn’t as strong an institution to solidify this kind of belief and therefore it’s frequently unclear what variety/register should be used and if it’ll be understood or accepted by users. For another time!

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