Lost in Translation

Posted by imagico on 16 March 2018 in English (English)

Yesterday's OSMF board meeting contained a discussion about the idea of translating OSMF wiki pages, in particular the board meeting minutes, into languages other than English.

There was no definite decision on the matter, the topic was essentially bounced back to the Communication Working Group. But there was an interesting discussion on the topic of translations i want to comment on here.

For context: The OSM community is a multilingual community in the sense that there is no majority of native speakers of any language in the community. But OSM community communication has always been centered on the English language - partly because OpenStreetMap originated in the UK, partly because English is the most widespread smallest common denominator language, i.e. it is the language most community members speak and understand at least rudimentarily - though this is also kind of a self fulfilling prophecy since people with no capability of communicating in English at all have it much more difficult to become a member of the OSM community.

The OSMF in particular is practically an organization with English as the only working language. The OSMF in terms of members also almost has a majority of native English speakers, on the OSMF board 4 of 7 members are native English speakers. None of this is codified in OSMF policy though and i would wish we had more variety of language in OSMF communication - like for example people posting on osmf-talk in other languages (which is rare - but it does happen).

Based on this background it is of course highly desirable if the OSMF board looks into making the OSMF less focussed on English language communication. But the problem is that translating OSMF documents is potentially destined to be more of a political alibi initiative (the kind of thing you can point to and claim you have done something). To make this clear the OSMF board clearly does have good intentions in this matter but the problem is - as usual with diversity topics - a lack of awareness of the nature of the problem.

One part of the discussion that stuck with me in particular was when a board member (a native English speaker) mentioned that translations are tricky because a translation is always subjective and inevitably transports an opinion, an interpretation of the content. While this is absolutely correct it does not even touch the real issue here - namely that the original English language text already inevitably transports cultural and social values connected to the language. It is not the translation that introduces opinion and interpretation to a policy document (and i would include board meeting minutes in that because they frequently contain statements regarding policy), it is the original English language text that does. This is what you need to be aware of regarding language diversity - there is no neutral ground here. And having translations that are subordinate to an English language original can further aggrevate the problem instead of solving it.

So what can you productively do for language diversity in the OSMF? Here a few ideas:

  • Minimize the amount of codified policy. This is traditionally the OpenStreetMap way and it has served the project quite well in the past. OSM is well known to have very few firm rules. The written rules and conventions we have are often just attempts to write down what is the way things are done practically to support newcomers in learning things - meaning they are documentation of established habits rather than being policy themselves.
  • Where codified policy is developed it should not be universally done in English. Deliberation on policy measures can and should involve different languages. Take the directed/organized editing policy which is currently in development for example. The first draft for such a document was written in German by the German mapper community. It contains ideas and transports values that are in parts specific to the German culture - just like an English language policy draft will often transport British or American cultural values. I think having the German draft probably helped creating a more balanced policy in this case and having for example a French, Spanish or Russian draft or sketch could equally help in other cases.
  • Different language versions of policy documents should have equal authority. To some this might seem a strange idea incompatible with the very idea of having a policy - which is usually considered to imply the policy is the same for everyone. But in the end - if there is a substantial difference in meaning of different language versions of a policy document that is usually an indication the policy was not very well defined and precise in the first place.

Regarding translation of non-policy documents - i think this is something that might be better addressed by supporting communication of the ideas in these documents and commenting on them in different languages than by creating and maintaining formal translations. WeeklyOSM routinely communicates OSMF activities in different languages which has much more reach and is of much more value than a translation of a wiki page slumbering somewhere deep in the depth of the OSMF wiki. The CWG also tries to communicate on the official OSMF blog in multiple languages. In short: Communicating about what is happening in the OSMF in different languages is in my opinion more valuable than translating what is happening. Supporting such activities by giving people who do this appreciation and support and by trying to attract more people with skills and passion in this domain to contribute to such is the way to go here.

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