It’s a global phenomenon – the American Dialect Society even picked ‘tweet’ as the defining word of 2009 (‘Google’ was chosen as the defining word of the decade, although only, presumably, with regard to the developed Western world). So do some of those 140-character-or-less updates need to be translated?
Initially you might think that no tweet is sufficiently important to be translated into another language. After all, the majority of tweets are by nature ephemeral – they last for as long as they remain on the page and are quickly displaced. The fact that you almost fell over because the pavement was icy outside of your house might be of interest to some of your friends or acquaintances, but probably not to a global audience.
However, Twitter has become so popular that the major players have climbed aboard (or joined the flock). Gordon Brown, for instance, had a Twitter feed (now just the official No 10), as does his wife; indeed, Sarah Brown’s Twitter feed caused a minor incident late last year when Fraser Brown, the couple’s young son, hammered out a tweet on the keyboard while his mother was out of the room. Barack Obama, too, is on Twitter, as are senators and ministers, not to mention pop stars, cricketers and actors. And even Global Lingo are on Twitter!
These are tweets that might be of global importance – Obama posted soon after the health bill passed, which could have been, for many people, where they heard it first. So, if you are, say, Norwegian and you want to follow Obama’s Twitter, what can you do?
Some people are trying to hook up Google Translate to Twitter, allowing foreign-language feeds to be automatically rendered into English. Machine translation has the advantage of being fast, which is crucial, because the whole point of Twitter is that it is first to the punch. However, machine translation is poor at the best of times; when faced with the distinctive, elided slang of social networking, even the most advanced translation tools will struggle to capture the sense of the original.
The trouble is, there isn’t time to send a tweet out to a translation company and have it translated. Even the most efficient agencies take time, and few, in any case, would consent to work on 140 characters.
What the most important tweeters need is a reliable translation firm who can translate the brief messages quickly into selected major languages. Twitter doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, and even if it does not prove to be the definitive social networking site, something of its kind looks set to play a major role in international communication. So the big players – and maybe, eventually, the smaller players – might want to consider some more official arrangements for their translations.