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Operating system goes African

Microsofts latest version of its operating system for personal computers, Windows 7, will be made available in 10 African languages.

The successor to Windows Vista was released to general retail in October 2009. This comes less than three years after the launch of Vista, which took some time to gain acceptance and was widely criticised at first because of its initial high cost, heavy system requirements, and a few other issues.
Translation into the 10 African languages is expected to be complete by the end of 2011. The move is part of Microsoft’s plan to make the operating system available in no less than 59 languages by the end of 2011. Also scheduled for translation is the latest version of the company’s productivity suite, Office 2010, which is currently in its first beta.
Microsoft South Africa’s head of citizenship, Vis Naidoo, explained that the translation work is to be tackled by teams from South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya. Work has already begun, he said, and by the end of next year users will be able to navigate through the programmes in the local languages of Sesotho sa Leboa (northern Sotho), Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans.
In addition to the five South African languages, versions will also be available in Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic, enabling users across West, Central and East Africa to become as familiar with the operating system as their southern counterparts.
The company’s 2003 and 2007 suites and other popular applications are already available in some 100 languages, among them Uzbek, Quechua, Tatar, Bosnian, Punjabi, Macedonian, and Kyrgyz. Translations are applied through language packs, which can be downloaded for free and installed in Microsoft applications.
South African localisation and translation company Web-Lingo played an important role in the release of Microsoft language packs in Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho sa Leboa for the 2007 office suite and Windows Vista. Web-Lingo MD Sonette Hill said that four million words commonly used in these software products were translated by a team of 40 linguists and two project managers.

Unlimited potential
Naidoo is responsible for Microsoft South Africa’s programme of uplifting communities by bringing the benefits of technology to them. This is done through private and public partnerships under the Microsoft Unlimited Potential initiative. The long-term goal is to improve the lives of South Africans as well as create sustainable business growth for the software company.
Lack of access to computer technology is a major stumbling block to progress, said Naidoo, and is estimated to affect more than half of all South Africans. The problem is exacerbated by people not being able to understand the language of the user interface.
Naidoo was speaking at Microsoft’s Local Language Programme Africa Summit, held in Johannesburg from 16 to 18 November 2009. The gathering brought together teams from Microsoft, the company’s partners within South Africa and government representatives. The Local Language initiative is just one component of Unlimited Potential.
Access to computer technology in their own languages, he said, will give millions of South Africans new possibilities for education and employment. Naidoo quoted a 2006 UN study which showed that learning and development is possible only through familiar languages, as people learn better in their mother tongue. Bridging the digital divide in emerging markets, by providing software in languages that are meaningful to the local population, is crucial to unlocking this growth potential.

Translation and localisation
Lionbridge Technologies announced at the start of the summit that it would help the global software company with localisation across 35 languages, including the 10 African languages. Massachusetts-based Lionbridge specialises in translation, interpretation and localisation.
"Emerging economies such as those in Africa are becoming the next computing frontier with strong demand for productivity and mobility technologies. Language plays a critical role in bringing sustainable technology adoption to these markets,” said Lionbridge CEO Rory Cowan.
Microsoft is working closely with government and academia, as well as relevant bodies such as the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb), in the development of its South African language packs.
Experts are needed because it is important to maintain the style and culture of a given language, but also to accurately translate new terms, like “broadband”, which have never before been available in that language. According to Pansalb chair Sihawukele Ngubane, localisation must make it appear as though the application was originally developed in the local culture.
The KwaDukuza Resource Centre in KwaZulu-Natal, an educational initiative for the local community, is one facility that has seen the benefits of localisation and translation after installing the isiZulu language pack. People who are literate in isiZulu but not in English can now receive computer literacy training, and the availability of programmes in their own language has encouraged people to enrol in greater numbers.

Janine Erasmus