Estonian translations: personal experience and an appeal for co-translators

For some time I have been translating the FSFE web site into Estonian. Estonian is a small language: there are a little over million native speakers.[1] I have been subscribed to the translators mailing list since the beginning of August and to the extent of my knowledge, I have been the only one to translate FSFE materials into Estonian in the meantime. This post is a mix of personal experience, future wishes and an appeal for Estonian-speakers to join forces.

On the one hand, the translation work has been hugely satisfying — it has enabled me to see the beauty of Estonian —; on the other, it has been hugely frustrating: lack of established terminology has been hard on me. The absence of accepted terminology can be a bliss, so why has it not been for me? Before Nicolas invited me to contribute my first translation, I had not considered my own mother tongue something special. In my mind it had always been in the same league with my fatherland and my nation, i.e. something I cannot control and something that is fine to have, but should not be worshipped. I believed one day I would stop using it and switch over to English due to impracticality of Estonian in the global world. But things have changed: I have gradually become to realize that Estonian is a beautiful language, albeit it might still be replaced by a global language one day. Furthermore, as a beautiful language it ought to be kept beautiful. Preserving beauty, however, is easier said than done and I am not especially creative when it comes to inventing new words. It is far easier to localize a foreign word than invent a new one. On the upside, a foreign word is easier to understand. On the downside, foreign words destroy the beauty of a language: an abundance of foreign words can be used to communicate the message, but it cannot be used to communicate the message in Estonian: a message consisting of localized English loans would be neither English nor Estonian, it would be English bastardized with Estonian cases. And I simply have no right nor any desire to destroy the Estonian language.

Well, what can be done to reduce the tension accompanying the translation process? Language teams with more than one active translator have a number of options available, including proofreading. Proofreading both increases the quality of the work and helps the translator relax by ensuring that more bugs will be caught before publication. It also encourages the translator to strive for perfection: the knowledge of imminent critique certainly encourages one to work harder. Nonetheless, advocating proofreading is not the purpose of this paragraph (proofreading has enough traction already). Proofreading is collaboration in the post-translation — i.e. editing — phase. In a truly open process, collaboration could be used in the translation phase itself. I am sure that in a limited way some translators already collaborate while translating: if one cannot find the right word, it makes sense to ask someone else and I am sure that sometimes it is done. However, more often than not one uses an inferior word rather than bothers his or her friends. Nevertheless, a closely knit community of translators can collaborate and the collective intelligence is often able to offer a better translation than a lone wolf. I yearn for a group of people with whom I could discuss the wording of the translations.

Which brings me to the purpose of this post: please contact me if You are able and willing to work on Estonian translations or other future Estonian activities. If You are not an Estonian-speaker and You are not yet involved with any FSFE activities, You might want to consider joining your local country team. If You do not have the time or willingness to become an activist yourself, at least let the FSFE know if You spot a poor translation that could be improved.

To conclude, my translation experience has certainly been enlightening and in retrospect I am hugely grateful to Nicolas for getting me involved. I hope that my experience might encourage someone else to localize the FSFE web site, a free software package or the web site of another worthy cause. I would also be happy if this post encouraged other translators to share their experience and wishes with the community. My first three and a half months have been great.

Further thanks go to Matthias for the help rendered and to Otto for the help promised.

[1] Estonian language. Wikipedia. Retrieved Nov 13, 2011.