Computer translation brings Inuktitut one step closer to language of government

Microsoft to roll out local language-based Windows operating system



A giant project is underway to make computing much more friendly for Inuit – not by fixing any bugs and technical glitches, but by translating the entire Windows operating system into Inuktitut.

Iqaluit’s Pirurvik Centre has been working on the translation since early last year, when a Microsoft employee approached the language and cultural centre about working with them to create the first Inuktitut operating system.

The project is part of Microsoft’s Local Language Program, launched in March, 2004. The program is partly charitable, and partly a way to guarantee future customers, though in this case, the market is tiny.

But Gavin Nesbitt, who runs the Pirurvik Centre along with Leena Evic, thinks the impact could be huge.

“What do you need to make Inuktitut the working language of government? Well, you need to be able to work in Inuktitut,” Nesbitt says.

“People look at that at being able to have conversations in the hallway, but it actually means you could sit at your computer and type in Inuktitut without wacky things happening when you do it.”

Nesbitt has been working with Inuktitut on computers ever since he came to Nunavut in 1998. Over the years he’s provided technical support for Inuktitut speakers typing, or building databases, in syllabics.

Until 2000, when the Unicode font standard was created, which allowed people to build fonts in multiple languages, working with Inuktitut meant using fonts that you could see and work with, but that would not necessarily mesh with other users’ systems. That made simple things like email and document sharing especially difficult.

In Nesbitt’s view, now that fonts can be shared safely, the next step for computing in Inuktitut is to get fonts recognized at the system level – in other words, putting the Inuktitut language right on your screen. After that, comes “localization,” or translating actual software programs, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook – all of which are scheduled for translation in this project.

One technical glitch remains. The first Inuktitut version will not be in syllabics, but in roman orthography, because the current Windows operating system still can’t handle the unusual characters. However, using dual orthography, translating this version into syllabics should be simple once Windows releases its next operating system.

If all goes well, Inuit could get a glimpse of the system in roman orthography by October of this year.

Finding new words
Working directly with Microsoft has meant a giant leap forward for Inuktitut computing.

“There’s still technical issues to be resolved,” Nesbitt said, “but by and large, it’s now a cultural and language project.”

Windows XP – the latest operating system – has about 300,000 words that need to be translated. The software programs have a further 400,000 terms.

Pirurvik got the project started last summer with a series of language workshops with local computer users, elders and language authorities. That produced 2,000 Inuktitut computing terms that will form the core of the translation.

“We know we have fantastic words; we know we have awful words,” Nesbitt says. “The test or evaluation of whether or not it works is if people use them.”

Eva Aariak, the former languages commissioner of Nunavut is now working with the Pirurvik Centre. She says getting used to the new terms in Inuktitut “won’t be any different from using new technical terms in English.”

Aariak also believes that the project will have a major impact on the workplace, by raising the profile of Inuktitut and by proving that there’s no reason Inuktitut cannot evolve to meet the new needs of its speakers.

Chris Douglas, director of official languages and services at the Government of Nunavut’s department of culture, language, elders and youth, says his department is “very excited” about the project, but he’s not sure how quickly it will affect GN workers.

“A lot of people won’t be comfortable working with an operating system in Roman orthography and they’ll want to see something in syllabics. They’re going to have to wait until the next version of the operating system comes out.”

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