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Role of translation and languages ​​in the circulation of ideas and information

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In space and time, the intensity of intercultural communication and interlinguistic exchanges depends largely on the quantity and quality of information translated from one language into another, but history has shown that the circulation and “notoriety” of ideas are not quantitatively confused with the most widely spoken languages. In particular, the number of speakers of a spoken language is not a good predictor of the ability of a message created in that language (or circulating in that language) to subsequently be translated and circulate around the world; According to linguist David Crystal, “what explains why a language becomes a global language has little to do with the number of people who speak it, but much more with the identity of those speakers”. The network of bilingual speakers and translators is therefore of great importance from this point of view.

Since the nineteenth century and with globalization and the regulation of “intellectual property rights” and translations, a number of languages ​​and cultures have been more or less “translated”, or even died out more quickly than before or are already dead or forgotten (it being understood that a dead language such as Latin can continue to be translated).

Some authors describe the emergence of a new network and a global language system, where English is playing a role that has become dominant and central. The cultural-linguistic hegemony of English could, however, be gradually contained by the improvement and generalization of machine translation software on the Internet and by the new approach which encourages and facilitates “interlinguistic translations and exchanges. in international projects (translations into 287 languages in Wikipedia, for ex., ​​possible at the end of 2013, including so-called “dead” languages ​​and Esperanto, with several major bilateral language projects).

Analysis of the relative situation of the world’s languages ​​has long been impossible for lack of relevant data, notes Mark Davis (president and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium which produces character encoding standards for all computers and mobile interfaces of the planet using writing), while we nevertheless sense the importance of the structure of this network; for a long time it was impossible to study quantitatively the structure of the global network of exchanges between languages, but this is becoming easier thanks to the constitution of large open databases of “places” of global exchanges such as Wikipedia, Facebook or Twitter, and while the we know more and more about the proportion of languages ​​spoken on the Internet.

In 2014, an American-French team used network science to create maps to visualize how information and ideas circulate in the world (according to the language of the original message, according to the average GDP of the countries where this language is spoken, depending on the language of the first translations and those which will convey the information or depending on the medium (book, Wikipedia, Twitter) …). To draw up this “map”, these researchers studied on the one hand the data available on literary translation (taking as a basis 2.2 million translations of books published in more than a thousand languages) and on the other hand the two major global language exchange networks that are:

  • bilingual tweets (based on the study of 550 million tweets, 17 million users in 73 languages, selected for the study), which was possible thanks to the open database and because this allows you to associate a tweet with a language and the person who tweets with one or more linguistic communities;
  • different language versions of Wikipedia pages (without taking into account the work of robots in Wikipedia), whose database is open (DBPedia).

Here’s what the analysis of this data reveals:

  • there is a significant hierarchy of “interfacing” languages ​​in this network, with nuances depending on the media studied;
  • unsurprisingly, English is the most important and effective language to assume the function of interface between other languages ​​to disseminate an idea or information in the world (English constitutes, in the mapped network, the most central hub). In the following ranks, notably in Wikipedia, French, German and Russian play a similar role, then comes a constellation of smaller “hubs” with for example Spanish and, far behind, Tamil, Portuguese or Chinese, languages ​​not very conducive to the worldwide dissemination of ideas although they are spoken by a very large number of speakers. In contrast to English (which is spoken almost everywhere in the global idea exchange networks), Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic, although immensely popular, are isolated in the exchange network. between languages ​​(which means that communications in these languages ​​reach speakers of other languages ​​less, and less quickly);
  • in terms of major nodes in the network of interlanguage information exchanges in the global network, literary translations and the Wikipedia interlanguage system (283 languages ​​in 2014) still mainly value European languages ​​(and Japanese for translations), but Twitter gives more importance (after English) to non-major languages ​​in the two previous exchange networks (Malay, Portuguese, Spanish, Filipino, Dutch, Arabic). The network of literary translations is more stable and formal. Wikipedia is evolving rapidly, but while being structured, while Twitter offers a totally different model, consisting only of short messages, very responsive to the news;
  • speakers of disparate or rare languages ​​benefit from being indirectly connected to other languages ​​via a hub (large or small) if they want their messages to circulate around the world. Twitter can circulate ideas within a group of related languages ​​(for example from the Philippines to the Korean area via Malay), while a translation through English will facilitate the circulation of an idea of ​​the Turkish language. in Malayalam (spoken in India by 35 million people);
  • bilingual or multilingual persons or institutions therefore appear as important “nodes” in the network for the transmission of information and ideas. The Internet and phenomena like Wikipedia and Twitter have amplified their role as language converters, but their ability to circulate information remains much more important if one of the languages ​​mastered by the user is English;
  • there are some atypical or emerging phenomena: for example, Dutch is spoken only by a “small” number of people (27 million speakers, which is much less than Arabic, which has around 530,000,000 speakers), but the Dutch are often both multilingual and very active online;
  • the users studied constitute a sort of elite, literate and active “online”. And although sometimes representing only a small part of all the speakers of one or more languages, this elite has a power and a “disproportionate” responsibility because, voluntarily or not, it leaves its mark (even of certain bias) the messages it translates and relays to other distant languages, cultures and peoples. This is particularly the case for English speakers whose messages seem to be the most apt to circulate far and quickly;
  • the low rate of translation of texts initially written in many languages ​​into Arabic and the Arab world constitutes an obstacle to the dissemination of “external” knowledge;
  • a country which encourages the translation of many documents into English (or into one of the languages ​​which are the best relays) will make itself better known. The choice of a second language which is very well connected to other languages ​​on the Internet of social and cultural networks is therefore an asset;
  • a non-anglophone who wishes to circulate ideas or have access to new ideas outside his culture has every interest in choosing English as a second or third language, while an anglophone will gain by choosing Spanish, French or German rather than Chinese or Hindi, at least for the dissemination of ideas through the written word.

Cultural transmission also involves spoken language, locally and remotely (via telephone or Skype), which could accelerate the dissemination of certain ideas and information.

(Translated from Wikipedia)

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