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Wikipedia, Translators without Borders, and the Sum of All Human Knowledge

Wikipedia’s goal is a world where every single human can freely access the sum of all human knowledge. In August I represented Translators without Borders at Wikipedia’s annual conference to pledge our support – and to raise awareness of why language support is essential if this goal is to be reached.

Wikipedia currently has content in 286 languages – less than five percent of the approximately 6,000 languages that human beings live in, laugh in, raise their children in. And Wikipedia is doing much better at language coverage than any other entity operating on the Internet. For example, English and the main European languages are spoken by around 15% of the global population, but 80% of Internet content is in these “rich” languages as opposed to just 50% of Wikipedia.

Despite Wikipedia’s valiant efforts, there are many inequalities of access to knowledge on Wikipedia. For example, five million Norwegians have access to 400,000 articles in their language, while the 50 million speakers of Hausa across eight African countries have access to barely 300.

The old argument that it doesn’t matter because people in poor countries don’t have Internet access no longer holds true.

Mobile phones are already bridging the ‘digital last mile’ to give the next billion people access to the Internet. If we look at the least connected continent on earth, we see that three out of four Internet surfers in Africa are using their mobile phones to get online. And when you think that over 65% of people in Africa already have access to a cellphone, the opportunities for increasing access to knowledge are staggering.

Cellphone connectivity is so important that a study just released from Kenya found that people living on a dollar or two a day will go without a meal or bus fare in order to be able to recharge their mobile phones (http://www.infodev.org/articles/mobile-usage-base-pyramid-kenya). However, for the growing percentage of poor people who have access to smartphones, data charges can be prohibitive. But this is improving. Today, half a billion people in countries from Uganda to India to Saudi Arabia can access Wikipedia on their phones, free of data charges (http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Zero).

These and other developments are making it imperative for us to help bridge what I call the ‘language last mile’.

The opportunities for sharing access to the sum of all human knowledge are enormous. By training and mentoring translators in developing world languages, we can help them translate information for their communities. We can have a real impact in taking down language barriers to knowledge so that poor people can improve their lives with access to information on health, agriculture, education, and technology.

The access to knowledge goals set by Translators without Borders are to:

1)    Raise awareness of the need for translation to take down language barriers to knowledge

2)    Help build translation capacity in local languages by training and mentoring translators

These are ambitious goals that we can’t meet without your support. Please join us! We especially need translators (with medical translation experience) for minority languages. If you can assist, please email enrique@proz.com who runs our project.

We also have an urgent need for doctors to validate English medical terms that have been simplified by the Content Rules volunteer editors to make texts more easily translatable into languages that lack wide terminology. Know a doctor who can help? If you do, please email val@translatorswithoutborders.org.

Thank you for being part of this great work.