One Face Behind the Translation of Software into African languages, Pheledi Mathibela - Surfing Sepedi

ngos Internet ICTs indigenous languages
Wednesday, 23 February, 2011 - 08:51

South Africa should invest in translating computer software to enable ordinary people to use computers in their local languages. The availability of computer software will not only encourage people to use computers, but will also contribute to their development 

"If you want to know the real person, you must speak to them in their own language,” says Pheledi Mathibela, “Because when you are speaking someone's mother tongue you are speaking with their heart, much more than when you are speaking their second language.”

Pheledi is one of the linguistic geniuses who translates for the NGO that pioneered software translation in South Africa, Translate.org.za. She is currently part of a project that translates open source software* into local languages, such as Sepedi, Southern Sotho and isiZulu. If you browse the web using popular web browser Firefox and choose to search in Sepedi, it is partly because of the hard work Pheledi has put into making this possible.

"I love what I do and believe it is an important part of making technology available to all people,” she says with enthusiasm. “Many people are afraid of software/computers/technology because it speaks a language they don't understand,” she says, “But in their own language, computers are not so scary. If we want to introduce people to technology it must be in their mother tongue.”

Being passionate about language helps. Pheledi began her journey into translation as a vocation when she was 20 years old and it has become a significant part of her daily life. As a young adult she volunteered for a non-profit organisation (Watch Tower Society), for two years, a time that shaped much of her desire to see people being able to engage in their first language. “They trained me in translation and I worked in Roodekrans, Johannesburg, where we all lived as a community,” she smiles, “And that is where I met my husband, Abe.” They have been married ten years and have two daughters, the eldest of which is already a techno-junkie. Nine-year-old Philisile has her own pink ACER Notebook computer, which she looks unusually comfortable on for a child - hardly surprising given the fact that she started playing computer games when she was seven years old.

Pheledi attended a localisation course at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2009 and one of the assignments was localising computer games into isiXhosa, Sesotho, Sepedi and Xitsonga. This inspired Pheledi to finish translating one of the games so that her daughter could play more games in her mother tongue, something that she says helped get her daughter into computers to start with. “She has switched to English now that she is a little older,” she explains, “But it helped her get around the software in the beginning.” Pheledi believes that finding software in one's mother tongue makes one feel like it's “your thing too”. That is why she spends so much of her time working on making technology available in African languages.

Pheledi has loved languages since she was in high school. “Sepedi was one of my best and favourite subjects. At home we spoke Sepulana (one of the Sepedi dialects) but I wanted to know all the Sepedi proverbs and how Sepedi words were pronounced. I loved to read their stories.” She admits to being irritated when people were not pronouncing Sepedi words correctly. Today that passion has come full circle. Pheledi and Abe run a professional translation business, Mosekola Translation Services, and she also spends the little free time she has translating open source as part of a growing community of people translating pro bono online. “I don't have much free time at all, but when I do have a few moments, I go onto Pootle (Translate.org.za's online translation tool) and do a little bit at a time, one word at a time,” she says, “It's my contribution to making computers available to all South Africans, not just those who speak English.”

She believes its time to not wait for others to do things for us, but to go ahead and make changes where you see they need to be made. “What I really value about Translate.org.za is the way they are not complaining that nobody is doing anything about technology and language, but they are getting on with it themselves and inviting others, such as Abe and myself, to be a part of that process,” she says. Translate.org.za has set its sights on making sure that technology can be used in any of South Africa's eleven official languages. They've built spell checkers and keyboards for some of these languages during the past seven years, pioneering the localisation of software in South Africa. Translate.org.za works with volunteers like Pheledi to make sure that free and open source software is available to all South Africans.

Juggling her work and family life has not been easy, but for Pheledi the fact that she can work from home makes a huge difference. “It could mean sitting up till midnight working on project deadlines after an afternoon of sorting the children out,” she says, “But it's great to be able to be at home when they finish school and still be able to be there for them, as well as work on projects that I am passionate about.” The opportunities her children will have were not available to her when growing up, but she is grateful for the chances she was given. “My parents didn't have enough money for me to further my studies in language related courses, but I am so thankful to the Watch Tower Society for giving me the opportunity to learn about translation. I didn't know anything about computers, let alone translation. They taught me everything from scratch.”

Pheledi believes that much of her passion and determination today rests on the foundation she was given during those years of volunteering. “It was the starting point for me. Since then I have achieved so much just by building on that platform, to the extent that I now do proofreading and editing of high-profile assignments regularly – something I would never have imagined I could do,” she says with conviction, “And this shows that if you are passionate about anything, nothing can stand in your way."

What makes it all worth it? “I recently told a woman that she could browse the Internet using Firefox in Sepedi,” says Pheledi, “And her response made me smile. 'What? Browse the web in Sepedi? Are you serious? Then I can use the Internet now and it uses my language.' I watched her face light up and it made my day!”

* Open source software: a definition: The basic idea behind open Source is very simple. When programmers can read, redistribute and modify source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing. (Open Source Initiative).

About Translate.org.za:

Translate.org.za is a South African NPO and winner of awards in 2006 & 2008 for bridging the digital divide and furthering multilingualism. Translate.org.za specialises in free and open source software, document standards, multilingualism, software translation and language rights advocacy. For more information, refer to http://translate.org.za.

- Renee Conradie works for Cerebra Communications. She is writing on behalf of Translate.org.za. She can be contacted on, Tel: 011 465 5709, Mobile: 083 461 0073, Twitter: @ReneeBC, E-mail: renee@cerebra.co.za.  

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