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The role of translation and languages ​​in the circulation of ideas and information

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In both space and time, the intensity of intercultural communication and interlinguistic exchanges depends in large part on the quantity and quality of information translated from one language to another, but history has shown that circulation and the “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 be translated and circulated throughout the world; according to the linguist David Crystal, “what explains why a language becomes a world language has little to do with the number of people who speak it, but much more with whom these speakers speak to.” The network of bilingual speakers and translators is therefore of great importance from this point of view.

Since the nineteenth century and with the globalization and regulation of “intellectual property rights” and translation, a number of languages ​​and cultures have been more or less well translated, or even already dead or forgotten (a dead language like Latin can continue to be translated).

Some authors describe the emergence of a new network and global system of languages, where English plays a leading and central role. The cultural and linguistic hegemony of English could, however, be gradually contained by the improvement and generalization of computer-generated translation software on the Internet and by the novel wiki approach which encourages and facilitates “translations and interchange -languages ​​in wiki sites, especially Wikipedia and its brother projects – in 287 languages ​​possible at the end of 2013, including so-called “dead” and Esperanto languages, with several major bilateral language projects).

Analyzing the relative situation of the world’s languages has long been impossible due to the lack of relevant data, according to Mark Davis (president and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium, which produces standards for character encoding for all computers and mobile interfaces on the planet using the writing), although the importance of the structure of this network is underestimated; it has long been impossible to study quantitatively the structure of the world network of exchanges between languages, but this is made easier by the creation of large open databases of “places” of world exchanges such as Wikipedia or Twitter, and when the proportion of languages ​​spoken on the Internet is increasingly known.

In 2014, an international American-French team used Network Science to create maps to visualize how information and ideas circulate around the world (depending on the language of the original message, according to the average GDP of countries where this language is spoken), according to the language of the first translations and those that will convey the information or according to the medium (book, Wikipedia, Twitter). In order to draw up this map, these researchers studied on the one hand the available data on literary translation (based on 2.2 million translations of books published in over 1,000 languages) and on the other hand the two main global networks of language exchange:

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

Analysis of these data shows that:

  • There is an important hierarchy of “interfacing” languages ​​in this network, with nuances depending on the medium studied.
  • Not surprisingly, English is the most important and effective in terms of interface between other languages ​​to spread an idea or information in the world (it constitutes in the mapped network the most central hub). Secondly, especially 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 ​​that are not conducive to the worldwide dissemination of ideas although spoken by a very large number of people. Unlike English (almost everywhere spoken in global networks of ideas exchange), Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic, although immensely popular, are isolated in the network of exchanges between languages ​​(meaning that communications in these languages ​​reach less speakers of other languages ​​and less rapidly);
  • In terms of major nodes in the network of interlanguage information exchanges in the world network, Wikipedia’s literary translations and 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 structuring, while Twitter offers a completely different model, consisting of short messages, very responsive to current events;
  • Speakers of disparate or rare languages ​​gain by being indirectly connected to other languages ​​via a hub (big or small) if they want their messages to circulate in the world, while within a group of close-language Twitter can help to circulate ideas (e.g. from the Philippines to the Korean zone via Malay), while a translation through English will facilitate the transition from an idea of ​​the Turkish language to 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. Internet and phenomena like Wikipedia and Twitter have amplified their role as a language converter, but their ability to circulate information has remained far more important if one of the languages ​​they master is English;
  • There are some atypical or emerging phenomena: for example, Dutch is spoken only by a “small” number of landholders (27 million speakers, which is much less than Arabic spoken by about 530,000,000 speakers), but the Dutch people are both very multilingual and very active online;
  • The users they studied constitute a kind of elite, literate and “online”. And although it sometimes represents only a small part of the totality of the speakers of one or more languages, this elite has a “disproportionate” power and responsibility because, voluntarily or not, it marks its imprint (even some biases) the messages it translates and relays to other languages, peoples and remote cultures. This is especially the case for Anglophones whose messages seem the best able to move far and fast;
  • The obstacle to the dissemination of “external” knowledge, which is the low rate of translation of texts in many languages ​​into Arabic and Arabic world;
  • A country that encourages the translation of many documents into English (or into one of the languages ​​that are the best relays) will become better known. The choice of a second language that is very well connected to other languages ​​on the Internet of social and cultural networks is an asset;
  • A non-English speaker who wants to circulate ideas or have access to new ideas outside his or her own culture has an interest in choosing English as a second or third language, while an anglophone should choose Spanish, French, German rather than Chinese or Hindi, at least for the dissemination of ideas diffused by writing.

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

Translated from Wikipedia

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