Site launched in the Emirates this week offers simultaneous translation between Arabic, English and Russian - but glitches remain.
Networking website launches with simultaneous translation
ABU DHABI // When Mais Al Ajeel posts on Facebook and Twitter, she often finds herself flipping between languages - English, Arabic, or even phonetic Arabic, replacing Arabic script with Roman characters.
When relatives write on her wall in Arabic, she finds herself bombarded with questions from her English-speaking friends about what was said.
"A lot of times I find myself translating, which can get frustrating," said Ms Al Ajeel, 28, who is from Iraq and lives in Abu Dhabi.
It is just that inconvenience that a new social networking site launched in the UAE this week is targeting. The Russian site Godudu.com claims to translate posts and comments as they are made - so posts appear in Arabic to Arabic speakers, English to English speakers, and Russian to Russian speakers, regardless of the language they were originally posted in.
The site is available in English, Arabic and Russian, with about 10 other languages to be added by the end of the year.
The company acknowledges it has glitches to work out, especially with translating slang. But it has proven relatively popular in other countries, and says it has 1.2 million users around the world.
While the site is mainly meant to bridge gaps between multilingual friends in ways that Facebook cannot, it can also be used as a tool for learning a new language, according to Abdurakhman Zulumkhanov, its project manager.
"We want this to include slang, different dialects and natural ways of communicating, and allow people to see and understand those translations as they happen," he said.
Users can link their accounts to Twitter and Facebook, to translate posts for those sites as well.
The translations will rely heavily on a database of user suggestions, and will require correct spelling and grammar. That, admits Mr Zulumkhanov, might be a challenge.
"We want to make this as user friendly as possible, and people might not have to type a full sentence, but the main thing is that we want to provide translation that makes sense," he said.
Language has long been a barrier on social networking sites, research by the Dubai School of Government found in May. Unsurprisingly, most users prefer only to use the language they are most comfortable speaking.
Even within the Middle East and North Africa, there is a divide between a preference for Arabic, English and French.
While there is an apparent demand for such a translation service, Godudu joins a swelling number of social networking sites, many of which have struggled to recruit a critical mass of users, according to Racha Mourtada, a media researcher at the Dubai School of Government.
"A lot of people are interested in this, but it is difficult to get people to migrate from one platform to another because it is too much work," she said.
"Still, many people will hold back thoughts on Facebook and Twitter because they do not know how to say what they want, the way they want to."
Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of communication and media sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, said it was only a matter of time before Facebook or Google recognised the need for instant translation and incorporated it into their own services.
"You would think there is quite a demand for this, especially in a place like the UAE that has people of many different backgrounds," he said. "But seeing this same thing on a bigger site where people are already set up is surely just around the corner."
Ms Al Ajeel said she would try the site, and might even take the time to help improve its translations. Her biggest concern is that a mistake in translation could cause embarrassment or be misinterpreted by friends or family.
"When it comes to Arabic and English translation, if it is done word-by-word it will likely not have the right meaning," Ms Al Ajeel said, "and that could be dangerous."