20 October 2008

The perils of "community" translations.
Recently Facebook, one of the highest valued websites since the inception of the internet, decided to become multilingual. Despite having raised a phenomenal amount of money from Microsoft, they didn't hire any professionals -- they opened the project to "the community".
Why? Because they wanted to expand their user base -- without investing a penny.
All well and good, but you get what you pay for, and that's what Facebook got.
I've already spotted one error in one of their translations, and it has a serious effect on the meaning of user profiles. The relationship status "it's complicated" has been translated to Spanish as literally "in a complicated relationship", which is a very different thing.
Why did this happen?
They asked specifically for native speakers of the target language only. Unfortunately that meant the team, such as it was, lacked sufficient source language knowledge. The Emperor's Nose fallacy holds whether you have a dozen, a hundred or a million people: the average of all guesses is not necessarily the right answer.

12 October 2008

The BBC has an odd relationship with the Celt.

BBC Wales recently filmed a series "based on" one of the most famous Celtic legends: the legend of King Arthur.

Merlin doesn't seem very... Welsh.  The legend as we know it is largely sourced from Wales' most celebrated epic, Y Gododdin, but the story presented in the series bears practically no relation to the legend (much like the recent Robin Hood series before it).

But it is not merely the lack of respect for the legend that I object to, but the bizarre ethnic confusion in the piece.

Arthur was a Briton, a lowland Celt.  The exact place origin of the legend is in dispute, but it certainly evolved among the Brythonic Celts during the early days of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Great Britain.  The Welsh are certainly his cultural descendants.  This makes it the largely Anglo-Norman aesthetic and the prevalence of home-counties accents more than slightly incongruous.  

That's pretty normal.

But there is a bit of Celt in the story.  Morgana, one of the key "bad guys" in the legends, has an Irish accent (although she's not bad yet).  The bad guy in the first episode was that Welsh woman from Torchwood.  The second episode saw an evil knight from the Western Isles, wearing Celtic knotwork (although he had a distinctly English accent).  OK, so Richard Wilson (a Scot) plays one of the good guys, and episode 3's bad guy's the Bionic Eastender, but overall, it's not very pro-Celt, is it?

Minority language television needs careful handling.

BBC Alba, the new Scottish Gaelic channel, went on the air a few short weeks ago, receiving an unsurprisingly mixed reaction.

Setting aside the tiresome and predictable -- too much money, dying language, shortbread tin, etc etc ad nauseum -- there were a few areas of comment that perhaps justify more examination: too many repeats, the same old faces, too much music.  OK, the number of repeats is to be expected as new programs cost money which any minority channel is going to be short of.  The same old faces?  Well who else has been trained to do the job?  But too much music?  That brings us to the heart of the one of the greatest problems in Gaelic broadcasting, and perhaps also the Gaelic public image.

Why so much music?

Well, put simply, music is cheap.  There's loads of people who rehearse in their own time and all you've got to do is bring them into a suitably kitted out studio or hall and record them.  Secondly, a music program is far more accessible to the non-speaker and/or outsider than a sitcom (something's always lost in the translation) or a debate on the impact of crofting reforms on the Western Isles.  Furthermore, traditional music is woefully underexposed by mainstream programming.  Combining music programming with Gaelic programming may not kill two birds with one stone -- many of the traditional music fans decry the lack of Scots, and many Gaels are seachd searbh sgìth of the whole harp-and-bagpipe scene -- but where statisticians are concerned, two half-dead birds are the same as one parrot that has ceased to be.

The use of music programming in the great ratings chase has done inestimable damage to Gaelic's public image: it reinforces the notion that Gaelic is primarily the plaything of anachronistic Celtic twilightists, and obscures the fact that Gaelic is a living community language, flexible to myriad situations, and spoken mostly by normal people with no particular cultural axe to grind.

But this music-heavy tradition still is of great importance to BBC Alba.

The BBC Trust have declared that for BBC Alba to be considered viable and receive the funding required to move to Freeview in 2010, they must have an audience of a quarter of a million.  This is more than four times the number of speakers of Gaelic in Scotland, so the channel has to reach out quite far to people with little or no interest in the language.

How is BBC Alba to compete?  Even if they bought the rights to a hit series on the scale of Friends or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who would tune in to see a Gaelic dubbed version with English subtitles when they can watch the original on another channel?  Creating a new series of that magnitude is pretty difficult given the budget they've had to settle for.  So what can they do?  Same old faces and too much music.  For now... but it's still not enough.

So the channel came on-line with two different active audience groups -- the supposed core market of Gaelic speakers and the supporting market of traditional music fans -- but these hardly go any way to providing the ratings needed, so the channel will either have to focus much of its expenditure in the forthcoming round of commissions on a non-Gaelic speaking audience or simply put it's head down, rely on integrity and produce a Gaelic channel.

Because in essence, what the BBC Trust has said is not that the Scottish Gaelic community can have a channel, but that they can make a channel.  Yes, make a channel, but for someone else.  Who?  The BBC doesn't care.  Just anyone other than Gaels.

You may have heard of the POOLS project, funded by the Leonardo II scheme during 2005-2007.  They collected short videos on permissive and open licenses in a number of less-studied languages.

Well, now they're back with POOLS-T.  The focus now is on tools, not materials; hence the T.  Things are only just starting off, but there's already a lot of material from the first round of work as well as donated videos in a variety of languages.

Gordon Wells made some excellent and very professional videos under the title Scottish Island Voices.  These are available in two versions, English and Gaelic, and have been included in the Pools project.  You can hear an interview with him regarding the project courtesy of the Irish National Digital Learning Repository.

Finally, I've been playing with some of these videos, trying to figure out how best to use the materials.  I've uploaded one of Gordon's sets of Gaelic films to YouTube, and I've been playing around with annotation and subtitling options.  You can check them out on my YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/NiallBeag.

The Pools project currently hosts videos in the following languages: