Why translation of open source software into local languages has failed


TranslationsSometime in 2009, after quenching my thirst with (Ubuntu) Linux for two years I decided it was time to give back to the community. I am not a very talented code writer, I know that much, nor did i see any reason to wast whatever few talents I had on the oversubscribed international Ubuntu Community so I jumped to join the Local Ubuntu team. When I learnt about translating Ubuntu into local Languages I thought: What better way to give back to the community and promote the use Ubuntu in our country than translating Ubuntu Desktop Edition into Shona.


It seemed like a natural step: 61% of Zimbabwe’s population lives in rural areas and the majority of them use Shona as a primary means of communication with adopted English words like “sugar”, “matches”, “computer” etc. Also, for most children the Shona language is the most important tool of learning at ECD and Primary levels; more especially in rural areas. The conclusion was that there is a need for a Shona translation of Ubuntu or at least a want thereof. After all even the Aragonites have their own translation of Ubuntu even though they only have a total population of just 1.2 million. Or am I wrong and there is no need for Ubuntu Shona.

I was full of enthusiasm and encouraged by the support I was receiving from the ever dependable Kalpesh Thaker who even put a “help translating Ubuntu into Shona banner” on the official local Ubuntu website. Everything went well until I hit the bumps and finally the wall.


First bump: Somebody had been thoughtful enough to create the Ubuntu Shona team. That seemed like good news until I discovered this selfish person (S. Magumo) was no longer active and had not ceded control of the team to David Planella as per accepted practice. The result I could not even join the translation team since my application had to be approved. This problem still persists as currently there are five people awaiting approval with an application as early as March 2012. By the time I received approval I had lost half my enthusiasm and I imagine most people are no different in that regard.

Second bump: Lack of Shona standards. Let us be honest the Shona we use in our ever day language is not the Shona we write. A bunch of self-appointed overseers have continued to resist the assimilation of most new words into standard Shona resulting in a very static language. The result is that the language is in the very danger of joining the Latin language-in crypts of history. In contrast the IT field is very dynamic even the English language has trouble keeping up with all the acronyms like AWS, verbs like Tweet and nouns like hashtag.

How would you translate the text “Burn” on Brasero? I would recommend “Bhena” as it is the most used colloquialism but my colleagues (the few that I had) disagreed some suggested “Pisa” some “Gocha” depending on their dialect. The result was that so much time was spent arguing with so little translating that in the end before we were halfway a new version of Ubuntu had come up. For all it’s worth I would recommend my method. With the latter method you will be grappling for words when translating words like “File” and “Print.” What do you recommend?

The final wall was the Leechers problem that plagues our country. Few people write code (or contribute to Free and Open Source Software) and the good many who can but don’t, do not write because they are just lazy or selfish. They claim they are too busy with their jobs. I know for a fact that the organisation Thaker works for is one the busiest IT companies in Zimbabwe, yet every six months, on schedule, Kalpesh Thaker downloads the latest Ubuntu ISOs, using his bandwidth, meticulously updates the repository on a regular basis and answers even the lamest of questions in the local Ubuntu lists.

Only a few people keep the team running the rest are just dead weight. How many members of the Kernel Development team have day jobs at companies like Intel, Google, Microsoft and Oracle all of which are much busier than your local SME? When was the last time you contributed $5 to your favorite Open source project? Never. Then you are a leecher. A parasite that likes to feed on others and give nothing in return. Despite our country’s population being significantly larger than some of the Eastern Europe countries we still had far less volunteers and as a result the work was never completed. No wonder the project has consistently failed to deliver.

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53 thoughts on “Why translation of open source software into local languages has failed

  1. Seriously! Its hard to have a shona/ndebele computer or website in the Zimbabwean Vernacular. Why? Because these languages are not used as languages of command.

    1. You observation is correct. Translations do not change the name of the command “tar” is “tar” but even in Spanish “tar” is tar. That does not seem to have offended anyone.

  2. steady brother, do not be bitter. If you feel there is something that needs to be done, just do it or Nike it! You have the eagle eye to see it and man that’s your opportunity. Respect whatever consumes other people’s time, you do not know their passions, visions etc. Where you are is where you are supposed to be, just act it out. Not a goo way to make friends and not a good way to inspire others too. Action inspires more than ridicle. Anyway like me you are Zimbabwean, always priding ourselves in finding fault rather than acting and making a difference. Thus according to my opinion

    1. “until I discovered this selfish person (S. Magumo) ” i find this statement very baaad of you mr writer.

      1. It does reflect very badly on the author It is unprofessional and this is not the right way or platform to address issues. There could be reasons behind the issue, even if there were not, it is a very poor approach to resolving an issue. I am certain even Ubuntu has set procedures on how to resolve conflicts or override genuine bottlenecks

        1. I apoligize if I have offended your sensibilities by my candour.It must be my accounting upbringing. In CIMA when someone does something wrong you can expect to be mentioned in the magazine because the goals of the community are better than one person. S Magumo has not responded to emails since 2009!! It is not even clear whether this is a pseudo name or real name.

          1. Why would I be offended? Just commenting on what I would not consider appropriate. Naming people without giving them the opportunity to respond and on a public forum. Given that there has been no response from 2009, surely it is also within reason to assume that this person either does not access whatever email notifications get sent to or could be dead for all we know.

          2. It’s unfortunate your accounting background did not cultivate a sense of basic human decency. FOSS is not some guild that needs to preserve a façade of respectability/trustworthiness by naming and shaming alleged perpetrators (by the way: how well has that worked for accounting?)

            It doesn’t matter how long he hasn’t been answering emails: S/he is a volunteer, just like you, and doesn’t owe you anything. That’s what you don’t “get” about FOSS. You saying that some are “leechers” is just proof you don’t get it. There are no leechers because there is no expectation that everyone has to chip in; only those who want to, and are able. That’s why they are called volunteers.

            If a contributor/leader/maintainer becomes unavailable then there should be procedures to replace them. If that doesn’t happen to your satisfaction as an outsider, they you can ‘fork’ the effort & use the work done as a base. Getting onto your nearest soapbox to publicly bash the person on behalf of the “community” is poor form

  3. Hi Garikai.. thanks for bringing up some very valid points. i think its mostly the ubuntu team members/ex team members who understand this kind of frustration more than anyone else would in the techzim community. you have brought up some important things that i’d like to bring up for discussion on the ubuntu list soon…. as i think we can somehow work around some of the issues you mentioned if we brain storm a bit (if we dont try, trhen we’ll never know). sure there are only a few dudes who still have some passion left for FOSS.. and think if channeled properly.. we can make a difference… somehow lol. will continue this discussion on the ubuntu list asap….

  4. No offence but this “article” is more of a childish rant. TZ, if you gonna allow posts like this maybe its time to introduce a forum?…It shouldnt’ be too hard since you’re running on wordpress.

    And to give some advice as to why the adoption of translated software will definitely fail in Zim is because we are a generally educated population and most people if not all people with the slightest hint of interest in IT will prefer to work in English as it is the global standard.

    1. The presumption is that the internet is only to be used when communicating with the wider world. Ko ambuya vako nevamwe vavakasiya kumusha. Akakuudza kuti havadi kushandisa technology ndiyani?

      1. Thank you. I take offense with Shona speakers who are willing to dump their language kuti vashandise mitauro yevamwe vachikanganwa kuti tinofanira kukurudzira mitauro yedu kuti vana vedu nevanhu vamangwana vakwanise kuchengetedza hunhu netsika dzedu.

      2. As a matter of fact, my ambuya happens to be able to understand
        english aswell as read it hence why she’s even on FB to keep up with her
        kids and us the grand kids all over the over the world from London to

        You’re forgetting most people “from kumusha” (no matter how old they look) actually do speak english in this country..well
        at least the ones I’ve met. And even if they can’t read it but
        understand it, there’s always the standard Narrator that comes with
        windows that can help out pretty much anyone with reading difficulties.

        So instead of gathering the “scarce” developers in this country which aren’t “leechers” and putting them to a task like this, why not task them with coming up with something far more productive that will actually make a difference in everyones lives.

        1. With all due respect translating into a local language is ‘productive’ enough. It has many benefits which include preservation of a language and culture. There is a lot of money offered by the UN, some government agencies and donors to preserve local languages. Its a noble venture even if it doesn’t make sense to you ‘global citizens’ who speak the ‘global standard language’.

              1. …. And some people just like to talk about those talking ideas. Contribute something instead of kungoshora. Dude you are a stereotypical Zimbo lol. This talk was about ideas and when you share ideas you talk you do not telepath okay? Lol!!!

            1. If I had enough money to sponsor language preservation activities I would. Matter of fact I am advocating for those with resources to help those who work on this. Thanks

      3. Thank you for the article! At least it shows someone cares about their identity and culture! Translating into Shona is by no way unnecessary or a waste of time it is a noble venture! The Chinese have a complicated and old language but they do their all in their language and look at what they achieve. Same for all the other races and nations and its only in Zimbabwe where you find someone achipembedza language yevamwe. Hanzi I can’t speak Shona munhu achitozvida! Lolest! Putting these languages in software and such keeps them alive for future generations. I have lived in the diaspora where sometimes you miss your vernecular language so much. English is not a ‘global standard’ its just the most used language. These days ‘global standard’ is your own language. Dadai nezvenyu!

    2. Dead right! My own grand-mother, and I think I speak for most zims, took great pride and delight when I came home from school speaking english while growing up. Not because english was inherently superior but it was a mark of progress and education. This is the culture most of us grew up in. Just about every website owned by zims is in english, why? because that is the preferred language and so happens to be the most international language there is. Translating a linux distro is something that someone who’s having a hard time land a real job can do, not something to gripe about as this article is doing.

    3. Agreed. Sections such as ” Few people write code…and the good many who can but don’t, do not write because they are just lazy or selfish”
      I fear my beloved TZ is turning into press releases, rant-space & self-advertorials. Whatever happened to excellent authors of old like Sam?

  5. Continue writing to this website to discover how you can capture more volunteers and funders by harnessing the power of the TechZim.

  6. Continue writing to this website to discover how you can capture more volunteers and funders by harnessing the power of TechZim.

  7. Shona is an ambrella term for many dialects. What you are calling Shona is Zezuru dialect which is the most popular.

    Whoever put the team should have look into that and put a framework of how translation can be done considering other dialects.

    For example in Shona(zezuru) we say ndanyara meaning lm ashamed. But in Masvingo it means lm tired.

    These little differences will cause a lot of time spent on arguments knowing how proud our are and always want to win argument.

    1. Yes its nice to be inclusive but going forward we need to standardize and unite for progress’ sake. Some dialects will have to die so we can all spend our effort on one thing as a team

    2. As matter of fact I was born and bred in Manicaland! I have however had extensive schooling in the rudiments of the Ndau, Karanga and Zezuru dialects. The Shona I proposed 4 the project was based on well established colloqialisms (slang) indeed the word “Bhena” is used in Masvingo, Chipinge ( I once worked for the Ariston group at South Down Estates), Mutare, Nyaga.

    3. As matter of fact I was born and bred in Manicaland! I have however had extensive schooling in the rudiments of the Ndau, Karanga and Zezuru dialects. The Shona I proposed 4 the project was based on well established colloqialisms (slang) indeed the word “Bhena” is used in Masvingo, Chipinge ( I once worked for the Ariston group at South Down Estates), Mutare, Nyaga.

  8. To be honest, I believe because Shona has some unknown regulatory structure that doesn’t even seem to issue “updates”, so to speak of the language, we’re gonna have a hard time trying to translate and creating knowledge in the language. If we knew who was responsible for moderating the language and they put out lists or announcements or whatever of what’s happening with the language, it’d be much easier. Just recently I read that the organisation responsible for watching over the French language introduced native french terms for concepts such as hashtag and email. That’s just one example. In Afrikaans plenty of computing/technology terms have been translated or transliterated so that students can learn in their mother tongue.

    I do agree and understand that Shona is a byword for dialects that are spoken through out Zimbabwe but we need to have a standardized dialect that is used as the yardstick so to speak like they do in China where the Mandarin spoken in Beijing is considered standard and is used by government, education and the private sector for communication purposes. The other dialects don’t die but they are promoted in their native areas. This is what we should have for Shona as well before we can go about trying to translate or create software that is written out for native speakers or shona second language speakers. Surely we cann all agree that if Zezuru is taken as the standard and then we incorporate terms and phrases from other dialects, we’d have made much more progress than if we bicker about cultural ignorance or what terms to use.

  9. I have an admin on the Shona Translators page for the past 5 years and the project has failed to gain traction for a lot of reasons – some mentioned in the article and the comments. We do need a regulatory body but what is important now is to get the ball running – semantics or mistakes can always be taken care of later on.

    @92f7f0bad2de4a040c9be32f8fc8e3e7:disqus drop me a mail (Limbikani has my details) – I will add you to the admin group and we can crank this thing up.

  10. Rather than tearing your hair out over lack of consensus on terminology and language use at this stage, if you think you are in a good position to be a leader on terminology/usage, why not start by compiling a glossary and leave it open for comments/criticism from the community. Once you have established some feedback and a bit more of a consensus on language usage, at THAT point try and encourage other translators to adopt your proposed terminology.

  11. Some comments from someone South of the border doing localisation work on FOSS into South African languages.

    The authors sounds tired and frustrated, been there myself.

    Why is nobody contributing and using this? Well maybe your target is wrong. As much as I love Linux, Ubuntu and FOSS I wouldn’t be translating Ubuntu. It is massive and the user base is small. If you want impact you should be translating Firefox (see ) and LibreOffice since most of your users will be on Windows anyway.

    Please don’t shame people who have obviously just got busy, they are volunteers just like you and if that is how you encourage people you won’t get much help. There are standard processes when maintainers are unresponsive, use that.

    Dialects vs languages debate… Don’t go there. Yes there are dialects and one will usually always be the written form. In Arabic there are many dialects but one form used in computers. There are 400 million Arabic speakers. There aren’t that many Shona speakers so don’t waste your time going that way. Computers are formal, and in some ways you are creating the Shona computer dialect that can embrace all variants. Very few other languages do these variants and when they do their speaker base is massive.

    Getting stuck. When you get stuck on terms just skip ahead. Don’t waste time debating one term. You are probably all wrong. It is only when you used localised software that you discover when the terms work and when they don’t.

    And to all those who say we should just learn English, love you guys, heads down in your computers. While I think Zim has better English literacy then South Africa the same issues apply. Culture is in many ways liked to language. Abandon your language and your culture is not long behind. Requiring people to use a second language for human and service interaction is disempowering to people that are completely capable, just not in English.

    And the real nail… computers on your desk are so last century. Cellphone are dominating and they’re getting very powerful. If every Zimbabwean had a computer in their hand do you really think that they could all use English. I doubt it. Shame on the geeks who want to hold people back and force them to learn English.

    Don’t give up. But I’d recommend changing your direction slightly to translate software that people are using.

  12. Quite honestly why do you even want to translate the software into local lingos ? You have too much time in your hands.

    Look at you you are posting in English to start with.Moderator please spare us the garbage OK.This is NOT a political forum,

  13. Shona is a complicated language which is difficult to translate, and that might be contributing to the continued failure to translate Ubuntu to Shona. There are some words that have no equivalents or even anything remotely near the translation in Shona. This coupled with some of the problems you identified, makes it more difficult.

    Another problem (as far as i can see) is the fact that we are taught or educated in English. We are taught to read primarily in English. Yes we have Shona as a language and Shona textbooks, but every other subject is done in English. This means that all those people in Zim that can actually read and write can do so in English. This means when they get Ubuntu to use, they are actually more comfortable with working with the English version. Even if a Shona version was available, its uptake would be low because of the way words and phrases would be changed to almost unrecognizable translations (as I described above).

    Its not a lost cause, but certainly a difficult one

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