Translation: Providing the Missing Link in Access to Knowledge

By Petras, Rebecca; Thicke, Lori et al. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Translation: Providing the Missing Link in Access to Knowledge


Petras, Rebecca, Thicke, Lori, Andriesen, Simon, Harvard International Review


Despite the Internet and the global nature of aid organizations, hundreds of millions of people still live in the information dark ages. Children die of dehydration in areas where the simple oral rehydration ingredients water, salt, and sugar--are available, but health posters on how to use them are in a different language. Anti-retrovirals can he issued to HIV positive patients, but if the instructions on how to take them are in the wrong language, confusion about the drug regimen will lead to side effects and patients desisting with treatment. The issue is not access to treatment, but access to knowledge, and language is the barrier. Access to knowledge is the linchpin in the fight against poverty, exploitation and medical disparities, and "the language last mile" is the final hurdle to bringing knowledge to every corner of the world.

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Global Knowledge: How is Knowledge Transferred?

In the developing world, paper-based communication of information is still the norm. That this method of knowledge transfer is still being used extensively by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be seen in the health posters and manuals found in village dispensaries across the developing world. However, this method of transferring knowledge is not cheap. Due to the logistics of printing and distribution, information--whether instructions on how to take AIDS medication or a poster on oral rehydration therapies--tends to be provided only in dominant languages such as English, French, or Hindi. Little regard is paid to the language spoken and understood locally.

In this print-centric model, generalized access to knowledge is dependent on one's proximity to a well-stocked library, and on that library having content in a particular language. However, reaching the millions of people who do not speak any of the main world languages with books and journals in their language is physically and economically impossible.

Hope could be on the horizon. With technology and communication advances, the flow of knowledge has increased significantly in the last ten years.

As the main conduit of information worldwide, the Internet is truly international. The statistics tell a global story. While most web pages are still in English, the Internet is becoming increasingly global. According to Internet World Stats, an internet data use aggregator, Chinese is rapidly catching up, followed by Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese.

However, paradoxically, the Internet is not linguistically global. Languages spoken by tens of millions of people, such as Swahili and Punjabi, are barely a blip on the Internet landscape. And penetration of the Internet into the least connected continent, Africa, stands at a mere 13.5 percent according to Internet World Stats, and much less than that for rural households.

Access to the Internet will become more extensive as countries continue to work on wireless and cabled infrastructure. In fact, other technological advancements, especially mobile networks, have improved communication to all corners of the world. By mid-2011, mobile phones constituted around 90 percent of all African phone subscriptions, according to BuddeComm, a telecommunications research group.

The International Telecommunication Union estimates that more than 75 percent of the world's rural populations now have access to a mobile network. In Africa, over half the population in rural areas do. Technology users in Africa are more comfortable with an SMS than a website, and communicators are learning to use mobile networks as an important means of knowledge transfer. The Economist reports that by 2014, 69 percent of mobiles in Africa are predicted to have Internet access. And this will be just in time.

Unless, of course, you belong to the majority of people in the developing world who do not speak English. Greater access to the Internet, whether via computer or cell phone, does not magically make information available if the information is locked in a language incomprehensible to the person who needs it. …

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