New initiative launches in Cairo and Beirut to support Arabic content online

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There’s a reason why initiatives like Taghreedat and Arabic Web Days are focusing on boosting Arabic content on the internet: Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, with a total of 230 million Arabic speakers worldwide, but its use online lags far behind. 

To encourage the creation of more Arabic content, AltCity and Global Voices, a network of bloggers and translators, launched T_Fest 1 (short for Translation Fest) last night, with a kickoff event in Beirut at AltCity and in Cairo at The Workshops. (It was supposed to be held in Rabat as well, but was cancelled at the last minute due to technical issues.)

At the cozy roundtable discussion, we discussed several topics, beginning with the goals of the initiative:

What is T_Fest?

T_Fest will be a series of events designed to collect a community of volunteer translators and ultimately translate specialized material into Arabic.

During the next two weeks, volunteers will work on translating two materials: Be Safe, Be Smart, which talks about protecting your privacy and security while using online tools for data visualization, and Visualization Tools and Resources. These tutorials are provided by Drawing by Numbers, which is a project by Tactical Technology Collective TTC, an organization that focuses on the use of information in activism.

The deadline for translating these materials is May 31st, when the next T_Fest will be held. Interested translators can volunteer by visiting T_Fest’s Facebook page.

So far, T_Fest has 12 volunteers: 4 from Lebanon, 3 from Mauritania, 3 from Morocco and 2 from Egypt, and it welcomes more.

Contribution and future plans

In coming events, T-Fest will cover various topics, including advocacy, entrepreneurship, TEDxBeirut, and activism in general. The initiative has also received a request from Visualizing Palestine to translate their infographics.

“The idea is to eventually, if it works, encourage this community of volunteers to translate more and more to fill the gap in Arabic content online. At a later stage, we hope to organize continuous meetings and establish a network in the region," explained Walid Houri from AltCity.

One difficulty is convincing people to translate for free. “Some people live from translation, so how can we motivate them to translate for free?" asked Joelle Hatem, a Project Consultant at TTC.

Several suggestions were put on the table. “We can incentivize them by displaying their picture and biography on AltCity’s and Global Voices’ blogs. Rewards don’t have to be always money,” said AltCity co-founder Dima Saber.

I would also suggest organizing competitions and targeting translation college students, as they are willing to translate for free to gain the experience needed before graduating.

A unified technical glossary for Arabic?

The majority agreed that one of the biggest challenges in translation is that there aren't standardized technical terms in Arabic. “Go to Wikipedia, and you will notice that only 1% of the content is in Arabic, and the quality is not good. In English, we have many good references, but that’s not the case in Arabic. Online dictionaries are not high quality,” declared Youssef Zbib, Editor and Translator at Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

But having an Arabic glossary for technical terms in Arabic is only part of the issue; it also has to be made widely available. “If we come up with a glossary, how can we make it official?”, asked Zbib.

One attendee suggested presenting this glossary to major players and organizations that focus on Arabic in the region. “If Wamda and SMEX use it, it will make sense and people will know about it,” concluded Hatem.  

Even though having a unified reliable official glossary that will be used by all online and offline Arabic content outlets is not a simple task, initiating a solution is always a start. As Saber said, “we will start bit by bit.” 

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