Translation underway to include Jamaican English in Linux-based operating system

STEVEN JACKSON Business reporter jacksons@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 01, 2013

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DEBIAN, a global computer operating system, aims to add Jamaican English, or Patois, to its installer in order to widen its coverage, according to the project translator, Michelle 'Afifa' Harris.


Its the latest drive to represent the language in formal settings.


"When you read the instructions to install software, a lot of time people do not understand what it says. You just press 'Next'. So [Patois] will bring a level of basic understanding to a technical process," she told the Observer in an interview at Cafe Blue in Kingston on Thursday.


Harris, a manager and doctoral student was selected by Debian as the only Jamaican to translate starting January.


It was part of a women in technology grant.


Harris indicated that offering the installer in Patois removes a linguistic disconnect.


Currently, the Debian software installer is in some 14 languages and website translations in some 36 languages. The project will use the term Jamaican English rather than Patois to describe the language.


"Thinking in Patois is different from thinking in English. So if you are operating in Patois it means that you are not switching modes all the time," reasoned Harris, who is currently programme manager for technology firm SlashRoots for project Code for Caribbean--an innovation fellowship in partnership.


Code for Caribbean is a partnership between SlashRoots, Mona School of Business and RADA.


Debian, an open source operating system, offers a free alternative to Windows or Apple systems.


It provides thousands of free software bundled for easy installation.


It started over 20 years ago and is considered one of the most popular Linux operating systems.


Globally some five million speak Patois which equates to that of Norwegian, which by default receives language options in many programmes and softwares.


Local application developers are increasingly offering games and trivia in Patois, but its the first known instance of a global software company offering technical information in Patois.


"If I can translate this into my language I can make applications in my language. I can do everything in my language," philosophised Harris. "Having your own language is an important part of your liberation, your ability to navigate the world. Not having your own language prevents you from having your own voice."


The recent translation of the New testament Bible into Patois represents among the most formal settings of translation to date.


"It is very political to do Patois," stated Harris, who is also a doctoral student researching developmental technology. "Translating the Bible was not about the Bible but about the Patois... about making people realise that your language can communicate important ideas. People do not have a problem with jokes in Patois, but if I want to write a piece on the theory of relationships, I must be in English."


The Debian translation project comes out of an Outreach for Women internship organised by the overseas-based GNOME Foundation with the support of overseas-based Red Hat. It seeks to get more women involved in technology by offering scores of paid and voluntary internships to as many software companies. Harris's remit along with other global interns was published on GNOME's page.


"Most software is in the main languages of the world but not our own. I have never seen anything technical in Patois. We do not acknowledge Patois as a serious language," she said.


Harris will also avoid using the academic Cassidy system which is based on phonetics. It was used to translate the Bible into Patois. However, Harris indicates that she prefers a sort of broken-English method.


"I will not use that system because to me it is unintelligible. Cassidy is problematic. I want to try to see translating the way I talk. If someone else wants to later use the Cassidy and call it whatever, then fine."


She verbally opined that 'give the name of your domain host and click next to begin partitioning' could translate as "giv' me di name o di people dem weh a give yu internet access and press next so we can separate di disc".


Harris recently submitted her doctoral thesis but will also translate it into Patois.


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