Translating technology terms into Burmese

Earlier this summer, Thomas Fuller of the New York Times published a memo from Yangon lamenting the lack of political vocabulary in the Burmese language, in which words like “democracy,” “institution,” and “privacy” lack direct translations.

Even more notable than Fuller’s nuanced sociolinguistic discussion is the way he ends it: with a conclusion that leaves any tech-focused reader hanging. After quoting a young Burmese developer’s story about explaining the words “developer” and “programmer” to her Burmese-speaking parents, the article jolts to an end with, “There is no Burmese word for computer. Or phone, for that matter.”

Where Fuller explores terms related to governance and democracy, TASCHA has been exploring terms related to technology as part of its ongoing Information Strategies for Societies in Transition project in Myanmar. A major component of the project is a “training-of-the-trainers” digital literacy curriculum that focuses on navigating ICTs, the Internet, and digital information. My name is Gennie Gebhart, and I have been working with TASCHA to research how key terms like “information literacy” and “digital literacy” do or do not translate into Burmese.

Without any significant body of literature on this topic, we have relied on interviews with our own networks in Myanmar, including teachers, librarians, academics, NGO staff, activists, and government staff.

Our contacts generally had disparate ideas about the meaning of “information literacy” and “digital literacy,” responding with thoughts about everything from basic computer training to hacker spaces and tech hubs. We also saw confusion about what qualifies as “digital” technology, with some contacts distinguishing mobile phones and data connections from more “digital” computers and WiFi.

The lesson we took from this is that “information literacy,” “digital literacy,” and even “digital” seem to be “tofu terms” – they take on the flavor of whatever is around them. If anything, they seem to prompt more confusion than clarity. Further inquiry into other Southeast Asian languages and even Romance languages confirms that these abstract concepts are a linguistic challenge across the board.

Contacts expressed disappointment in “borrow words”—that is, the wholesale importing of English pronunciation or even spelling into otherwise Burmese writing and speaking—but acknowledged that they have become a natural communication solution. We also explored more complex Burmese compound words, phrases, and explanations that might replace such borrow words. For example, potential compound words for “digital literacy” in Burmese translate literally as “knowing how to use computers” and “the ability to use various forms of communication.”

The next step is to incorporate appropriate words and phrases into TASCHA’s digital literacy training materials and curricula, review them with Burmese-speaking partners and pilot participants, and continue revising and refining the content.

The ongoing challenge is not just translation, but also interpretation. Our communication must be mindful of intended audiences’ educational backgrounds and experiences. We must also not lose sight of the fact that Burmese is a politically charged language for many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups and citizens. Beyond choosing the right words, we are increasingly called to contemplate a conception of “information” and its attendant competencies that is specific to Myanmar’s unprecedented technology environment. Continued collaboration with native speakers and stakeholders has the potential to bring us to more useful, comprehensible terms and ideas.

This post originally appeared on ICTWorks on Friday, October 9, 2015ICTworks™ is a premier resource for sharing and expanding knowledge on appropriate information and communication technologies (ICT) and the implementation processes that can make them sustainable in rural and underserved communities across the developing world (ICT4D).