Google Translate takes on ten more African languages

By Abèdjè Sinatou Saka
Posted on Monday, 20 June 2022 13:14

Google's artificial intelligence research centre in Accra, Ghana in 2019 ©CRISTINA ALDEHUELA/AFP

Since May, Google has offered translations for ten new African languages. But how can we promote them on the internet while still keeping control of our data?

On 1 July 2021, there were more than 4.8 billion internet users on the planet or 61% of the world’s population. This figure is constantly increasing, as is the volume of content published. However, no less than 80% of this content is only available in ten Western languages and is never translated into African languages – not even the most popular ones like Swahili. Machine translation is therefore intended to accelerate access to knowledge for people who do not speak English or French, for example.

From Lingala to Oromo

On 15 May, Google announced that Bambara (Mali), Ewe (Ghana, Togo), Krio (Sierra Leone), Lingala (Central Africa), Luganda (Uganda, Rwanda), Oromo (Ethiopia), Sepedi (South Africa), Tigrinya (Eritrea, Ethiopia), Tsonga (South Africa) and Twi (Ghana) could now be translated by Google. This is good news, especially as Google Translate is integrated by default on many third-party sites or important platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. But it also raises some questions.

For example, why were these particular languages chosen from the 2000 language options on the continent? Very little is known about the rationale behind the choice of the American company’s engineers. However, African human resource people could help the company expand this initiative. Before the announcement, other languages from the continent already existed on Google, such as Yoruba, with often approximate translations. Should we continue to integrate new languages or improve the existing ones?

In addition, the way Google Translate works is rather opaque. In order to offer relevant results, Google happily absorbs millions of different data from various fields.

But where will it find this data when it comes to African languages? Knowing that the speakers of these languages produce very little written content on the web, are the producers of this data absorbed by Google paid their fair value for their contribution to the tool? Yes, the tool is free (at the moment) but it is an intellectual contribution to a commercial enterprise. Its turnover in 2020 was $182.52bn. So our challenge is to revitalise our languages, which have real value, while keeping control of our data and protecting its integrity.

Collaborative effort

This data, the source of which is unknown, is also not freely available to developers who wish to offer concrete tools to populations held at arm’s length from the digital world because of the languages they speak. There is no public site on which to consult this data. And by integrating new languages, Google, through its sheer power in the commercial and communication realms, is making more collective automatic translation initiatives – which clearly rely on open data – invisible. There are, however, initiatives that deserve to be supported and encouraged by the international firm.

Thus, the Idemi Africa collective, with the stated goal of making African languages more visible on the internet, has called on the company to make its policy around integrating African languages more transparent, to make greater collaborative efforts with existing players and to make the data accessible to all. It is a question of treating the speakers of African languages as co-creators of these tools by paying them, for example, and no longer as people whose language is merely being syphoned off.

Language is more than a set of words, it is a way of thinking and relating to others… As Souleymane Bachir Diagne has said, quoting Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translation is “the language of languages” and it deserves to be invested in with humility and true human resources.

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