A multinational team, including programmers from Spain and Sweden, as well as Tanzanian linguists, has just released the first Swahili-language office software suite. Based on Sun Microsystem's OpenOffice, Jambo OpenOffice was released at the University of Dar es Salaam on Monday. The release of the tool marks the first time a Swahili-language wordprocessor has been available to the 55 million Swahili speakers in East Africa.
OpenOffice has become a popular translation target for free and open source (FOSS) localization projects. The suite includes some of the tools most often used by desktop computer users - a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation tools - and can run on Windows platforms, which allows users to experiment with open source software before committing to a platform change by installing Linux or another open Unix.
Translate.org.za has been translating OpenOffice, as well as Mozilla's Firefox and Thunderbird, into South Africa's nine official languages, as well as supporting translation efforts to bring software into Hausa (widely spoken in West Africa) and Kinyarwanda (spoken primarily in Rwanda). And KhmerOS, a project of the Open Forum of Cambodia, is localizing OpenOffice into Khmer.
OpenOffice localization is a long process, requiring the translation of 18,000 phrases. In the process, the Jambo OO team created a glossary of 1,500 Swahili technical terms as well as a spellchecker that uses a dictionary of 70,000 Swahili terms. In the process, they beat Microsoft, which announced an effort to create a Swahili version of Office last June, to the market.
Localization advocates point out that translation of open source software is a critical step in removing one of the key digital divides that prevent people around the world from accessing the Internet: language skills. Until software is localized, it is usable primarily by speakers of major Western languages - users with poor language skills have to learn English at the same time as they learn to use the Internet.