Open Eye: Lost in the E-Translation ; Transferring New Technology between Different Cultures Is Not as Straightforward as It Might Seem

Article excerpt

The potential for cultural and linguistic misunderstanding is something we take for granted when we visit a foreign country, but it is now becoming a significant issue in the world of computing and the internet.

Professor Pat Hall is one of several Open University researchers looking at issues connected with "cross-cultural computing" - how a technology developed by an English-speaking Western culture can be made accessible to the rest of the world. His research included nine months looking at how computers are used in Nepal.

The issues surrounding cultural adaptation are complex, ranging from translation into local languages to different and deep-seated cultural assumptions about the way the world works. Professor Hall gives an illustration:

"There was a computing system funded by an aid agency to control immigration in Nepal. Landing cards were collected from people at the airport, taken to the computer in the centre of Kathmandu and fed into the system. The answer as to whether or not someone should be allowed into the country was produced - a few days after they arrived." By which time the new arrivals had long since dispersed into Nepal.

The point of the story, he emphasises, is not to disparage the Nepalese people, but that systems transplanted from the West do not necessarily take account of available local resources or cultural attitudes towards time and forward planning. Professor Hall says: "We in the West are used to timing our lives very exactly. We keep diaries, make appointments and expect them to happen on time, and this very planning, programming style of living is put into our computer systems.

"In other cultures they are much more reactive - they wait for things to happen. In the Hindu calendar, for example, the calculations of dates begins only a few months before the New Year. Foreign embassies trying to arrange visits find it very difficult."

Use of colour in screen displays is another area ripe for misleading messages. Red to a westerner is a warning sign, but for the Chinese "it is a happy colour", Professor Hall says. "I went to a computer presentation in Macao given by Russians about Chernobyl, and the areas of radioactive contamination were shown in red. The Chinese found this puzzling. …