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The End of Kiswahili Text Translation Services

By Wayan Vota on November 24, 2009

We’ve seen all manner of business models upended with the digital revolution, from travel agents to the entire music industry. And now, Google has just wiped out another. Its time to say goodbye to text translation services for Swahili and Afrikaans.

Good Enough

If you jump around the Internets long enough, you’ll find Google Translate an indispensable aid in breaking down language barriers. You can put in text or just the URL and Google will create a pretty good translation of your target text in multiple languages.

No, Google doesn’t produce elegant translation, but its good enough and that’s its competitive edge. For the vast majority of translation work, you’re looking for the general point of the text, not a legally equivalent document. So Google Translate, at free, is eliminating the vast majority of translations jobs.

Now in Two African Languages

And now they’ve expanded their services to include Kiswahili and Afrikaans targeting the millions in East and Southern Africa that speak these languages more fluently than English. And they’re doing it for free. In fact, I’ve even added their handy widget to this post.

  • Bad News:
    Translation services companies who previously had a lock on Kiswahili and Afrikaans markets will soon see a significant decline in demand. The majority of requests that were for basic documents is about to migrate to Google Translate. Yet, they’ll not go out of business. There is still a need for professional, human, translation – there always will be.
  • Good News
    By removing a major barrier to cross language communication, Google Translate has just opened whole worlds of content to those who either only know Kiswahili and Afrikaans or who don’t. And with its low barrier to use (Internet access, web browser), Google has democratized what was once rare and expensive.

What Languages Next?

In cheering the Google Translate expansion into Africa, I do hope they don’t stop with only two. There are so many more languages, like say Amharic, Kinyarwanda, or Hausa, that would have equal impact as Kiswahili or Afrikaans in bringing a new population online. Let us hope and envision a day when every language is only a click away from our own.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “The End of Kiswahili Text Translation Services”

  1. Leland says:

    NYT had an interesting article on IBM’s work in the translation field, with the goal of instantaneous human-feel translation. It’s a nice application of crowd-sourced tweaking that could be incredible if commercialized.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/technology/23link.html?ref=technology