Translations in a global world of education

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I recently returned from France, where I used google translate to help me ask for the bill at the end of our meal. I asked the server for feedback on my French, and he informed me this was the literal translation, ‘pour la facture’. He recommended the more locally accepted phrase ‘l’addition s’il vous plait’. 

 As you read this, you may think, but why does it matter? The phrases were both comprehensible. Intelligible even. What this shows us is the importance of intent, and how an understanding of how languages are adapted locally makes the user's experience seamless. 

 Google can translate a word, phrase or sentence. Still, it cannot (yet) understand cultural nuances such as formal or informal variations, or how language can adapt as it travels. Non-native speakers of English greatly outnumber speakers born into the language, and the variations this creates in the English language provides countless examples of the differences between casual language usage, the grammatical standard, or one that favours shared meanings over semantic rigour. 

 I am not a huge tea drinker, but we all know, or are familiar with the word 'tea' in some form or the other. In Pakistan (where my parents emigrated from), they use the Urdu word 'chai'. If you are aware that both terms mean the same thing, you will understand the pain of hearing the phrase ‘chai tea’ in coffee houses.

 Nearly every country in the world has a similar word for tea: most use the ‘te’ or ‘cha’ phonetic variant. If you are familiar with using a ‘cha’ derivative, it probably means that tea travelled into that location via the mainland from China; hence many countries will use chai, cha, chay etc. You will see similar patterns with the ‘te’ sound for those where tea travelled via the coast. This incredible origin of an everyday item reveals the rich heritage of our language, and how some words resist change, while others are affected by time, technology or geographical mobility. (*link to the article cited in footer). 

As the new EMEA Product Manager, I am coming in to support and improve our translations effort. Language matters, especially in learning environments. Countless studies show that students learn best when they are comfortable. With increasing access to Educational technology in classrooms around the world, how a learning platform uses a student’s native language can either engage or estrange that student. At Instructure, we strive to support student engagement. Our translation efforts are motivated by ensuring equality for every student using any product in the Instructure suite and feeling comfortable and valued as they learn.

 We most recently introduced Catalan to our languages. A really useful piece of feedback was with regards to how we translated the word ‘tasks’ within courses. We initially used the word ‘tasques’’. But this refers primarily to household-related chores and the more appropriate translation in the educational context would be ‘activitats’. 

As part of our ongoing commitment to ensuring we get things right the first time, we have kicked off introducing Malaysian as a language this week. Malay, or Bahasa Malaysia is just one more example of a language rich in the history of its country and which affects its usage. Initial feedback is that our translations are very literal, and it appears we’re over translating some of the terms. Colloquially, a lot of English is thrown into speaking Malay, as well as in other SE Asian countries (Singlish), and it would only be under extremely formal contexts that one would use exclusively Malay vocabulary. For example, authentication is correctly translated to pengesahan, but something technical like auth URI might remain auth URl instead of benarkan URL.

We want to work closely with our customers and get you involved from the start (Malay is a great example of this) thus providing you ownership over your learning tools and a seamless and simplified user experience. How can you do this? Get involved in your regional user groups, highlight bugs/recommendations and feature suggestions through your CSM and our Support team. 

(You may even notice that this is written in British English ;))



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