OpenOffice.org goes Swahili

Developers have released the first version of OpenOffice.org in the East African language of Swahili, having overcome translation and infrastructure difficulties
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor
Jambo OpenOffice.org 1.1.3, the first version of OpenOffice to support the Swahili language, was released on Saturday.

Swahili is the most commonly spoken African language -- it is the chief trade language of East Africa and is the first language of at least 70 million people living in areas such as Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Uganda, according to the team working on Kilinux, the Swahili Localization Project. Alberto Pascual, the technical project coordinator for Kilinux, said the release is primarily focused at Tanzanians, as there are strong regional differences in Swahili, but the team is working with groups in Kenya to make modifications for Kenyan Swahili.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said that Windows and Office are not available in Swahili at present.

Infrastructure problems have posed more of a challenge to the project than have technical problems, according to Pascual.

"Infrastructure is more of a challenge than the technical things," said Pascual. "Internet access is slow and we have three power cuts every week. It is even difficult to make a phone call."

Transferring the OpenOffice.org code over the Internet only takes minutes in Europe, but can take hours in Tanzania, as high-speed internet connections such as ADSL are not yet available. Instead Web users have to rely on slow dial-up connections, said Pascual. The cost of Internet access is also an issue. Cats-net.com, an ISP in Tanzania, charges around $36 per month for 33.6Kbps dial-up Internet access, according to the company's Web site. This is more than 10 percent of the average income of an educated professional. Professors at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania earn $300 per month, Pascual said.

Another challenge for the project has been translating computer terms into Swahili. Computer terminology is not included in the Swahili language and the team has found it difficult to find people who understand enough about computers to do the translation. To translate terms, such as bookmark and download, the translators first needed to understand what the physical result of carrying out this action was and then find a word in the Swahili language which could describe this.

"If you translated download directly it would mean to unload food from a truck," said Pascual. "We needed to understand the concept, and then go back to the language and match the concept -- this took a long time."

The initial release of Jambo OpenOffice, which follows four months work, is a test version. This initial version will only work on the Linux operating system, but the final release, which is due in February 2005, will also work on Windows.

Once the final version is available, the Kilinux team may have a difficult job explaining the advantages of open-source software as software piracy is rife, said Pascual. "People here don't buy Microsoft licences, so free software is a difficult concept to explain as they think Microsoft is also free," said Pascual.

As Internet access is slow and expensive, distribution of Jambo OpenOffice is likely to be manual. The team plans to hand deliver CD-ROMs of the February release to primary schools, so that Tanzanian school children can use the software, said Pascual.

The Swahili localisation project has been funded by the Swedish International Development Agency and the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). The project has been coordinated by the Department of Computer Science at UDSM, the Institute of Kiswahili Research and Swedish consultancy IT+46.

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