The Linux to Bemba Translation Project

Anthony Musaluke - kitweonlineCan you say to your mobile phone in Bemba,

"Ita ba yama" (Call uncle) and your phone responds, 

"Ê mukwai, ndeita ba yama" (Yes sir/mam. Calling uncle)? 

Is it possible to command your computer in Bemba? The answer is "Yes" according to Anthony Musaluke. He has been quietly working at translating Linux into Bemba for several years.

Like Windows or OS X, Linux is an operating system for computers. This is the program that sits between the microprocessor in your computer or phone and the program that you are running on it. It is also widely used to provide a stable operating system for the computers on which most websites are stored (Servers).

Unlike Windows, Linux doesn't belong to one company. It is open source; individuals and hundreds of companies have contributed to its development. Various programs based on it have been developed, including Ubuntu.

Linux can operate watches, phones, computers and even super computers.


KitweOnline put some questions to Anthony: 


Tell us about yourself

I am a Mining Engineer by training and practised mining in Luanshya for 5 years before branching off to work in the information technology industry. I have been in the latter since late 1999. I just turned 40 last month. I am married with 3 kids, all girls: 4, 9 and 14.

I am currently working for Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ).


How did you get involved with the project?

I have been thinking about translating Linux ( pronounced lee-nax or lainax) , an open source computer operating system for Desktops and Servers, for a long time, to the tune of 10 years. It was not that easy in the early days but now the tools to help with translations are available and more powerful. Being an avid user of the many Linux versions ( called flavours or distributions by the royalists) and seeing how many other nationals of different countries have managed to have the operating system ‘speak’ their language was very compelling for me.

My main reason for starting work on this was after realising that our local languages were slowly being eroded and being replaced by English in every way. We are remaining with slang as a semblance of what we used to have as pure Bemba for example. So I decided to use translation of a computer operating system as a way of preserving the Bemba language. Once it gets into mainstream computer systems and phone systems language packs, it will stay there and can be improved upon by later generations. This way we get to keep the language alive somehow.
I had been working on the early stages of doing the ground work in 2009 – 2010. I got a bit lazy and distracted for a bit.
The project was spurred to life when I got an email from Samuel Gyger some time in April 2011 asking me if there was something he could do to re-start the process. Samuel, an Austrian national, was in Zambia for some overseas volunteer work ( similar to our previous ZNS training after school) was doing some work for Icengelo Magazine, if I am not mistaken, and is a linux user himself. By this time I had been making efforts to have the Bemba locale ( which is the localization files used in the translation library) included in the Linux localization library. Its a process that takes long and by this time I had been at it for over 1 year.
With Samuel’s help, we managed to get some traction and had a version of the Bemba locale which could be installed used on a local machine for testing the translations.
I have just also confirmed that Bemba was finally included in the glibc library. What this means is that all the software vendors who use glibc as a base can now choose to include Bemba as one of the languages you can use to select things like dates formats, day and month names, currency, etc. We have made great progress!!!!


Who works with you?

Currently I am working alone on the translation although the team has at least 3 other registered members, including Samuel, and a 2 others living outside Zambia. I am hoping I can get a lot more people to get involved so that work moves faster. Its a painfully slow process to do alone. Especially that it is a voluntary task and the rewards are only visible when you translate and reload the language and see your work come to life. It is very gratifying otherwise.

What are you hoping to achieve?
The final objective of this translation project is to have at least 75% of all translatable strings on the Linux OS be mapped into Bemba by end of 2012 starting with the Ubuntu Linux distribution. This will ensure that Bemba is sufficiently translated to be useful in other projects, be it on the phones, tablets, etc. When that day comes, you will have a choice of picking Bemba from a list of languages when installing or using the computer, phone or tablet. What a day that will be.


How much have you done so far?
Not very much I am afraid. There is a lot of work to be done. I do a few lines a day just to keep the momentum but sometimes I go for weeks without updating the work as I have a day job as well. You can view the status here


What challenges have you had to overcome?
The biggest challenge was to get the Bemba locale setup. This took a very long time to do. It is still not completely resolved but what is remaining is the easy part.


What challenges are you facing?
There are many challenges with translation. The biggest of them all is how to translate computing terms from English to Bemba. As you know, English is very basic whereas Bemba is very expressive. It takes too many words to say anything in Bemba, even simple things.
Then there is the temptation to re-cast the English terms directly into Bemba which when applied to communicating the intention it just does not make sense. Think of this: A computer desktop has something called ‘Trash’. To remove things you have deleted or placed in the trash bin, the English version says “Empty Trash”; and you get the idea of what it means. In this case, English is using both the contents of the bin and the bin itself as trash. You cannot do that in Bemba. Trash are “ifisoso” or “ifiko”. Then the trash bin or pit is ‘icishala”. Now I know someone is thinking, "Bushe bin te ng’ungulu?" ( Ng'ungulu is not Bemba, sorry).  
So, how do you empty icishala? We never had portable ifishala so our Bemba language creators had no need for such a word. When icishala is full, you bury it. So how do you translate "Empty trash" into Bemba so that it conveys the right message to the user? It's not as easy as one might think ;). Thats just one simple example.
There are others like "Format disk", "Iinstall software," etc.

Another challenge is the lack of volunteers willing to help with the translation, reviewing the translations to make sure things make sense, to prepare the glossary for reference during the translation, etc, see Ubuntu Bemba Translations Common Strings. The few people that I have talked to are happy to help, they just never get round to doing it. Others want to be paid for it.


Advice about how people can get involved with your work

We have prepared an introductory page here: Ubuntu Bemba Translators which gives a step by step explanation of how people can get involved. The translation can be done online via a web browser and is very easy. It sounds intimidating at first but we are all just learning and we all have to start from somewhere. I am available to provide guidance to anyone who is interested in this sort of task.
There is a mailing list as well where we can exchange ideas and discuss things.
We also require people to just go over the translation and put straight the wrong ones.
Remember these translations will start showing up on people’s computers soon so we need to do a good job and keep improving on it.
The work never ends as new versions of software keeps coming out with new words that need translating. BUT once we start, the changes needed for subsequent work will be very little.

Are there plans to do the same in other Zambian languages?
Once we get enough experience translating Bemba ( which in my opinion is one of the most difficult languages to translate), it will be much easier for other people to take on other languages. I am not a linguist and my other language I know is Mambwe, but also just about 50%. As a matter of pride and being a Mambwe as well, I might just translate into that for preserving both my mother and father tongues.
What do you think? Share your thoughts. Leave a comment below.
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  2 comments for “The Linux to Bemba Translation Project

  1. November 16, 2015 at 6:51 am

    this web site is super intresting love it

    • JS
      November 16, 2015 at 8:22 am

      Hi Draby, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad you find it interesting.

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