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Google Translate? No, Google "Arabize"

Google is working on not only translating its content, services, and applications, but particularly “arabizing” them.
Gehad Hussein | 27.02.2012
In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Bring started a research project to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library in English at Stanford University. 7.09 billion web pages and 145 languages later, they can proudly say that they have introduced the world to Google, the most popular search engine globally.

Today, with more than a third of the almost 7 billion people living on earth using the internet, Google is trying to get closer to each user’s identity – specifically on a linguistic level. Naturally, a notable amount of their effort is directed at the 255 million Arabic speakers in the world. With Arabic being the 5th-most-spoken language globally, Google has been working on not only translating its content, services, and applications, but particularly “arabizing” them.

“We want to be close to the language of our Arabic-speaking user, give him information that would be of importance to him and at the same time, offer him grammatically correct language,” Fayiq Oweis, Google’s Arabic Localization Manager, explained in a presentation last week.

Of course, there are several risks facing the use of Arabic language in technology, the harshest of them being the franco-arabic writing-style, where users write Arabic words with English letters and numbers. Vice versa, Arabic writers have also grown a habit of writing English words with Arabic letters and integrating them into the language, which awakens the risk of losing the Arabic language by not finding local substitutes for emerging or new English terms. The final threat Oweis mentioned was the spread of dialects in the Arab World and how citizens are beginning to write the same way they speak.

In order to maintain the Arabic language on the internet, increase the amount and enhance the quality of Arabic content, Google is trying to build channels of cooperation with translators, volunteers, universities, and Non-Governmental-Organizations, as well as offering support, tools, and programs that assist in creating Arabic content. Additionally, Google Arabia launched “Ahlan Online”, a website with a cartoon education series for internet beginners in Arabic language.

Yet, challenges arise when one tries to bring the cultures and languages of the world closer together. Starting with the text direction (right-to-left vs. left-to-right), over cultural issues, and date and time-formats, the lingual differences and characteristics need to be maintained and are forced to adapt at the same time. The Arabic language is known for its unique grammatical laws, such as gender-related conjugation of verbs, and the transformation of nouns according to the number preceding them. Overcoming these challenges is what Google is working on right now by unifying terms and localizing them rather than just blindly translating.

Several Google applications and services are already “arabized”, such as Google Chrome, News, Alerts, Toolbar, Calendar, Groups, Documents and most importantly, Google+, the recently launched social network.

Google+ was the first project where the Arabic and English version were released simultaneously, and hence, impersonated a real challenge for the “Arabization Team”.

Oweis also added that Electronic Arabic Advertising was beginning to become popular in the Arab World, which is why Google AdWords and AdSense were also in the process of Arabization. This would help the economy and widen the targeted audience of the companies.

Today, Google Search is available in 146 languages and translates 63 of them. The company has surely come a long way from the little research at Stanford University.