Gmail arrives in local language

Gmail users now have the option to run it in Myanmar language, Google announced last week.

The move to extend Myanmar language support to Gmail, Google’s email service, brings the firm closer to its goal of making language a non-issue on the internet, and is one of a number of company initiatives aimed at encouraging the exchange of information into and out of Myanmar.

The American search titan will also put on a local translation marathon February 28 under a new project surrounding Google Translate: “Love your Language”.

Google operates under the mission of bringing all the world’s information to everyone on earth, said Google product manager Divon Lan at a recent press conference in Yangon.  

Of all the people online, almost half log on from Asia – yet more than a third of the internet’s information is still in one language: English, he said.

“For the internet to be useful to this guy selling something on the streets, and let’s say he doesn’t speak any English ... it has to be Myanmar language,” Mr Lan said. “There’s no other option.”

More local language resources are an important ingredient in making sure Myanmar users get more from the internet. Google has also been working with its translation tools with the aim of making the internet language-agnostic.

“What we are trying to do at Google ... is make languages not matter in the sense that it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you should be able to [access] all the information in the world,” Mr Lan said. “Google Translate is in the centre of that ideal.”

The seeds for modern machine translation started with computer scientists that examined languages’ grammatical structures for switching between tongues. The system resulted in weak translations because “an academic description of the language is only an approximation of the real language”, or how people speak and write it, Mr Lan said.

Instead of turning to high school-style language rules, Google searches out and finds “parallel texts” – written words in two languages that should have equivalent meanings. Scoping out patterns using these texts turns out better translations than previously, according to Mr Lan.

However, Myanmar lacks an abundance of these texts, which Google requires to run these translations. It’s still early days for the service.

The corporation rolled out Google Translate support for Myanmar language in December. Mr Lan said earlier the project – a start-and-stop, global, distributed effort – started years ago. Translate debuts when it arrives at the “alpha” stage, or when translations give readers the general idea of what foreign text says; though today they aren’t word-perfect, due to a dearth in Myanmar language text online.

This is where community members can help. Mr Lan said users’ corrections improve translation quality.

The company hopes to rope native Myanmar speakers into the translation effort through a marathon, run in two three-hour blocks at 10am and 1pm on February 28 at Phandeeyar, a downtown innovation lab.

“This is actually the first time we’re having a big Google-led event and we hope to get a much higher volume of contributions,” Mr Lan said.

During the era of American sanctions on Myanmar, Google could not fully engage with the country due to legal restrictions. The country’s web users will have a much wider reach as it becomes increasingly connected.

“This is about bringing all the world’s information to Myanmar, but it’s also about bringing Myanmar information to the world,” Mr Lan said. “Myanmar is a country with a very long, rich history, a very, very unique culture ... All of that information now is locked in the borders of Myanmar.”

Not for long, if Google has its say.