Lost in translation: building a multilingual space at RightsCon
From internet accessibility to machine translation to app design, language is inextricably tied to our evolving digital ecosystems. Our grasp of language informs our identities, our sense of self, and our relationship to others. It is a key part of our ability to make human connections, and preserve our cultures and histories.
Lack of linguistic diversity and accessibility in the digital sphere has a twofold impact. First and foremost, it turns connective technologies into echo chambers where English (and other languages of dominance or privilege) control an outsized share of available content, which replicates and reinforces unequal power structures. Currently, only five percent of the world are native English speakers, and yet 50 percent of the web caters to that small demographic. This skewed reality runs counter to the fundamental philosophy behind a free, fair, and open internet.
Secondly, linguistic exclusion can constrain the flow of information and the manner in which that information is shared or consumed, potentially enabling inaccurate and biased viewpoints to prevail. As Mark Graham of Oxford Internet Institute puts it, “Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others.” On both a macro- and micro-level, the ramifications of restricted or one-directional information flows are immense. And as is often the case, the most marginalized and targeted groups are the ones who face the greatest obstacles to accessing digital spaces.
Where language and community meets
These challenges are not limited to the digital sphere. Global convenings can be a particularly fraught space for cultivating linguistic diversity; however, there are clear benefits to creating spaces where a diversity of voices – particularly those from underrepresented communities – are able to drive and inform the conversation.
As RightsCon grows in size and scope, we have recognized both the difficulty and the importance of narrowing this divide within our community. In the past, we’ve featured various sessions on language and the internet, localization as a human rights issue, and communication in humanitarian design, among others. We know that inclusivity and equity must be woven into the fabric of our program. That’s why we introduced a language component to the 2019 program process for RightsCon Tunis, our first summit in the Middle East and North Africa region. In addition to English, session organizers had the option submit proposals in French and Arabic, the two most common languages spoken in Tunisia and the Maghreb. Ultimately, we hosted 15 non-English sessions: three in French and 12 in Arabic.
We recognize this is a small portion of the overall program. This year, we’ll continue to work on making RightsCon Costa Rica more inclusive and accessible. Certain questions on our proposal submission form can be submitted in Spanish, in order to reach communities from our host country and the broader region. We will continue to update preguntas frequentes on our website to provide details about RightsCon in Spanish. We welcome proposals on linguistic diversity and run sessions in other languages. As in Tunis, we plan to provide simultaneous translation of all of our main-stage plenaries.
Listening, learning, and elevating new voices
Costa Rica is an ideal environment to refine our approach to language at RightsCon. The country is linguistically and ethnically diverse: as well as Spanish, its inhabitants speak at least five local indigenous languages and three sign languages (including LESCO, Costa Rican Sign Language, and two forms that correspond to the indigenous languages of Bribri and Brunca).
Worldwide, more than 2,500 languages – the majority of which are indigenous – are endangered or at risk of extinction. The United Nations (UN) declared 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages in an effort to draw attention to this crisis, which has been compounded by the historical oppression and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples. Protecting indigenous cultures often involves using online resources and databases to collect indigenous knowledge, which means digital and data governance directly intersects with the problem of linguistic survival. Convenings like the Latin American Festival on Indigenous Languages on the Internet are paving the path to stronger integration of indigenous rights in conversations about connectivity and accessibility.
Since 2018, in response to recommendations from participants, we’re also working to improve the representation of indigenous perspectives in the digital rights movement. Our team has consulted with representatives from eight countries to expand the presence and participation of indigenous communities at RightsCon. These efforts led to a special participant-led session on indigenous data sovereignty at RightsCon Tunis, as well as the creation of a working group dedicated to increasing coordination and participation at key convenings. In 2020, our program will build on these efforts and continue to provide a platform for those working to preserve indigenous rights, cultures, and traditions in the digital age.
As part of our mission to facilitate inclusion at RightsCon Costa Rica, we’re also actively searching for session proposals focused on disability rights, accessible design, and assistive technologies. As a whole, the human rights and technology communities can do more to address the specific needs of people with disabilities, especially those with deafblindness, speech impediments, vision impairment, and reduced motor skills. Emphasizing human rights-centered design is one of the ways in which technologists and companies can prevent ableism. Mental health care, too, deserves greater focus in our work, considering that increasing access to accurate medical information (in the user’s own language!) can have a direct impact on identifying and treating invisible illnesses like depression.
From words to action
Language touches almost every facet of human rights in the digital age. As technologies continue to converge and drive transformational change across sectors and industries, it’s important for RightsCon to serve as a platform for those who are left behind or left out of the conversation altogether. Linguistic diversity not only encourages diversity of thought, but also enables indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups to reclaim power and authority over their own narratives.
At the same time, lack of resources, funding, and manpower can prevent us from achieving all that we set out to do, and even with these incremental steps, gaps remain in our ability to provide translation services on-site or communicate with participants in their own native language. Together, alongside the RightsCon community, we are learning and listening through this process, with the intent to do more and do it better.
Interested in hosting a session in Spanish, or driving the conversation on language in the digital age?
The Call for Proposals for RightsCon Costa Rica is open until January 14, 2020, and we want you to submit! You can read our Guide to a Successful Proposal to learn more about the program process, or reach out to us at [email protected] with questions. We invite input from members of our community, and our team is here to help if the session proposal form presents a barrier to your participation in terms of language or accessibility.
Help us reach more people. Interested in translating this blog post to your native language? Send us a note at [email protected].