A website promising to bridge the divide between Arabic and English speakers has launched this week, with its backers hoping the technology used will enable a dialogue between cultures. Meedan, meaning "town square" in Arabic, allows those who do not speak each other's language read and discuss the news together. "We're not trying to shape the way people think but we're trying to help them to listen in a way they normally could not," said George Weyman, the community manager for Meedan. "This is an opportunity to explore and understand the views of people who don't speak your language."
News articles published by the site are translated using technology developed by the computer maker IBM, before being fine-tuned by a team of paid translators and a community of more than 100 volunteers. But the technology, which has improved dramatically in recent years, can now render highly sophisticated translations. "It is astonishing how well this machine translation is improving," Mr Weyman said. "The focus has historically been on translation into English - that's where the majority of the funding was. But we're also very focused on translating into Arabic, which is hugely important.
"The Arabic web needs as much content as it can get and we need more ways for this fast-growing community to interact with the rest of the online world." The not-for-profit site has attracted funding from prominent philanthropists and foundations. IBM has also donated millions of dollars' worth of time and technology to the project. Its database of translated text is freely available online for use by other translation projects.
Meedan is a non-profit social technology company. It has been online for almost a year in trial mode and has gained a small audience among journalists and news-watchers in the region - a group already engaged in the affairs of the region. But for it to be considered a success, Mr Weyman said, the service would need to reach people who otherwise would not have interacted with those from a different background.
"This is the real challenge. The whole project hinges on the concept of dialogue and enabling people to interact across languages," he said. "A lot of non-profits appeal to people who already share their values and understanding, but to create lasting impact we need to go beyond that. "We need to appeal to people who want to express their views, but don't realise they could engage in this kind of discussion beyond their language."