Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 09:53 UK

Tech giants rush Farsi versions

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

at googolplex crossing
Google now works in 42 different languages

Search giant Google has stepped up work to release a tool that will translate Farsi into English and vice-versa.

The company told the BBC it was speeding up the project because of the huge interest in what was currently going on in Iran.

At the same time, the world's biggest social networking site, Facebook, is launching a Persian version.

Both companies say they hope their efforts will improve access to information and communication.

"There is a huge amount of interest in events in Iran and people want to know what is going on inside and outside the country," Google's principal scientist, Franz Och, told the BBC.

"Providing access to information across language boundaries should be very helpful. It's one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world and vice-versa."

Facebook announced that it had also accelerated work on its Farsi translation.

In a blog posting, the company noted that people around the world had been using Facebook to exchange information about the aftermath of the Iranian election, but that most of that had not been in English.

"Much of the content created and shared on Facebook related to these events has been in Persian - the native language of Iran - but the users have had to navigate the site in English or other languages," it said.

As a result, Facebook has now made the entire site available in a test version of Persian, "so Persian speakers inside of Iran and around the world can begin using it in their native language".

Challenges

Both companies stress privately that there is no political motivation in what they are doing, and that their main goal is to facilitate communication and the flow of information.

Google's stated mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. To that end, it is already available in 41 other languages from Arabic to Spanish and from Danish to Vietnamese.

Message in Farsi saying access blocked, 25 May, 2009
Native speakers helped Facebook with its Farsi translation

Mr Och said he and his team had been working hard over the past few days to rush the Farsi service out. As a result, it was about 80% perfect.

"This is done using machine translation which, in general, is not as good as human translation and so, for some languages, the quality is mixed," explained Mr Och.

"With Spanish to English we get a nice translation, but for others it's much harder because we don't have so much data from which we can build our systems.

"Farsi is one of those where the translation is not as good but we hope to make it better relatively soon."

Likewise Facebook has said its translated site is not a polished product but "we felt it was important to help people communicate rather than wait".

However the company said a lot of its success in being able to go live with what it has done is down to the more than 400 Persian speakers who submitted thousands of individual translations of the site.

Both companies are looking to perfect their work and said they welcomed help from Persian speakers.

Milestone

Much has been written about the role of the internet and social networking sites in spreading news, video, pictures and information about the post-election chaos.

YouTube
YouTube is showing video from the streets of Tehran

These latest moves to provide Farsi translations have been praised by the Personal Democracy Forum, which looks at how technological advances and global internet trends are reinventing politics, democracy, society and government.

"The ability to translate the information flow that is going on at the moment into Farsi will benefit everybody on both sides of this battle," the Forum's co-founder, Andrew Rasiej, told the BBC.

"What these efforts do is add to the bigger idea which is that as people are more and more connected, the basic human right of free speech spreads with it.

"This is another milestone in allowing human beings to communicate with each other and break down the barriers that might have prevented them from understanding each other due to language," said Mr Rasiej.

"We hope we will have a positive impact," said Google's Mr Och.



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