December 2021

Wiki Club Gathering Dec 7, 2021: Roberta’s Sum-Up on Translations and Languages

This month we looked at translations and languages. 

There are 195 countries in the world today, and approximately 6500 languages, depending on how you count them. The online encyclopedias that we are interested in are delineated by language, not country. There are 325 different Wikipedias, and they are not simply translations of the English-language one. That was the first, and remains the largest, but it definitely doesn’t belong to England, and despite the adage that “the Internet speaks American”, it doesn’t belong to the United States either.

Remember from our discussions in previous months that the word “wiki” refers to the type of software: easy to edit, easy to revert mistakes. These 325 encyclopedias are all supported – but not controlled – by the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco. As a registered editor, you have what is called a unified log in, or a global account: you can make edits to all the related projects under the same name. 

All 325 home pages look recognisably similar to the English-language Wikipedia homepage, because they are all based on the same or similar templates. Your account gives you the technical ability to edit any of them. Whether or not you can read the language, or even decipher the script, the guessable layout allows you to click on the edit button on the top right of the screen, and begin to edit. I don’t recommend that you do so, but the software will permit it. (Let’s hope that an editor from within that language encyclopedia comes along soon to revert your mistakes.) Although they run on the same software, each encyclopedia has its own community norms, developed by its own team of volunteer editors. I understand, and hope to explain to you, the rules of engagement for the English-language encyclopedia, such as styles of referencing (our topic in November) or what counts as conflict of interest. I cannot advise on the etiquette and procedures of all the other Wikipedias. 

According to this list of Wikipedias, the English one has an “active user base” of 123 000 people, more than the next 12 languages combined, from French to Persian. Almost 300 of these encyclopedias have fewer than 1000 editors, defined as any registered account that has made at least one edit in the past month. Scores and scores of languages – some admittedly small, but some with tens of millions of speakers – have fewer than 100 editors. For example, Amharic, the working language of Ethiopia, has only 47 active editors.  If your home language has few people improving its Wikipedia, you could make a real difference to those who read only that language.

Let’s look at two scenarios: into your native language, and out of it. Professional translators and interpreters usually work into their mother tongue (what linguists call L1, i.e. one’s first language), but that need not constrain you within the wiki-world, as other editors, probably native speakers, can tidy up your prose later. If your L1 is Amharic, you have great scope to take material from English into the Amharic Wikipedia; but your passion might equally be to translate the wonders of Ethiopian cuisine into English, where the rest of the world can discover them. You can choose one or the other, or both. You can focus on entirely different aspects, if you wish. Perhaps in your judgement you think Amharic-speakers need access to information on the nutritional qualities of their staple crops such as teff, whereas English-speakers (or I should say, readers) deserve better information about the cultural significance of the coffee ceremony

In my case, my L1 is English, and growing up in Montreal gave me French as my L2. In theory that means that I am comfortable writing in the former, and reading in the latter. The Canadian joke defines bilingual as “illiterate in both official languages”. Let’s see how that works out…

During our live wiki-editing via screenshare, we spent some time looking at the two relevant Wikipedias. To demonstrate some of these principles, I chose to look at the staff of life:  “bread” in English and “pain” in French. The first thing to note is that these two articles are in no way translations of each other. Just as when an English person thinks of bread, they get a different mental image than a French person does, so too do the two articles cover different facets of the same overall subject. 

Another important thing to note is how much you can glean from the table of contents (with or without a bit of help from an automated translation). Scanning the article in this way shows you an overview of what features are given weight. The French article has a lot on history and types of bread; the English goes into detail about preparation and ingredients. Note the pointers to daughter articles: the English article “Bread” has sections on history and typology that point to separate specific articles entitled History of bread and List of breads.

Let’s say I want to improve the English-language article with some material from the French one. English Wikipedia allows us to use materials from other Wikipedias, under the principle of assuming good faith. Here’s where one’s own personal judgement comes into it: I can read through the list of sources, and follow the links, and distinguish between the so-so and the rock-solid. My knowledge of French allows me to put my hand on my heart, and say that the  Dictionnaire historique de la langue française is a standard work of reference from a highly reputable publishing house. A bot cannot do this (yet), but a human can: despite my imperfect French and my lacklustre bread-making technique, I can use “pain” to improve “bread”. If I am challenged by another editor, I am confident in justifying my addition.

Or, I can request a volunteer translator improve the article. Wikipedia: Translation explains how that works, translating into English. For the other way round, Wikipedia: Translate us offers a framework. “This page is a guide for anyone, but particularly new volunteers, willing to help translate articles from the English Wikipedia into other languages.”

A reminder to educators: setting a translation task can be very motivating to students, as what they write could be read widely.

You can learn how to link different wiki projects, and specifically different language Wikipedia pages, at this help page on  interwiki linking. You may wish to point readers to another language, because your L1 Wikipedia either lacks an article on the subject, or covers it in a cursory fashion (a stub article). A bad automatic translation of a good 5000 word article can be more useful than a well-written 200 word stub in one’s own language.

Another hugely important dish you can bring to the feast is your access to sources, as discussed in November. You are welcome to use books, journals, and databases from any language. One of the top-level policies is verifiability (WP:VER): can a statement be proven to be true? Related to that is a sub-policy about using other language sources (WP:NONENG). A few brief excerpts: 

Citations to non-English reliable sources are allowed on the English Wikipedia. However, because this project is in English, English-language sources are preferred over non-English ones when they’re available and of equal quality and relevance. […]  If you quote a non-English reliable source (whether in the main text or in a footnote), a translation into English should accompany the quote. Translations published by reliable sources are preferred over translations by Wikipedians, but translations by Wikipedians are preferred over machine translations. When using a machine translation of source material, editors should be reasonably certain that the translation is accurate and the source is appropriate. Editors should not rely upon machine translations of non-English sources in contentious articles or biographies of living people. If needed, ask an editor who can translate it for you.

The list of sources recommended by WikiProject: Food and drink is almost entirely in English. (I haven’t edited that page myself, but I notice a delightful number of familiar names.) You would be doing a service to the community if you could recommend standard works of reference in other languages. Is there an equivalent to the Larousse Gastronomique in your cuisine or in your language? 

Things to do

  • Add standard works of reference or other useful reliable sources to WP: Food and drink sources
  • Consider translating an article into English, if appropriate
  • Or request such a translation from another volunteer
  • Consider adding to another language Wikipedia (by translation or by creation) 
  • Keep editing! Try to make improvements to a few different articles. If you have a query about the way forward with a particular article, explain your position on its talkpage, and if no one responds within a day or two, reformulate your question for the Teahouse.
  • Remember your successes; we’ll be asking for examples to share at our next session.


The place to go for 24/7 help is Wikipedia:Teahouse – as in, a calm environment to relax and learn. “A friendly place where you can ask questions, to get help with using and editing Wikipedia.”

If you can’t remember the link you need, use a search engine. Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes pages are often difficult to find. Its internal terminology can be obscure.

What next for Wiki Club?

The dates are fixed; the subjects are suggestions so far.

  • Tuesday 4 January – new beginnings (of articles)
  • Tuesday 1 February – illustrations

What would you like to see? 

And a re-cap of the basics:

If you are a complete newbie, start with the hour-long video I made for the 2020 Symposium. Some people then like to dive straight in; others prefer to learn more first. Here is a list of short how-to videos; most are 3-5 minutes long.

Beginner Training (from Art + Feminism, a group created to combat systemic inequalities ) 

Userpages and the Sandbox

Basic Rules of Wikipedia editing

Adding Citations

Anatomy of a Page

Creating New Articles

Wikipedia Training Video Part 1 – followed by parts 2 & 3

Produced by the Wikimedia Foundation

The Wikipedia Adventure – long but light-hearted

Various sources

Editing Basics (Visual Editor) – this is the option that looks like a regular word processor

How to Create a Wikipedia Account – Tutorial

How to Edit a Wikipedia Article

These are all videos. If you prefer your training in writing, use the titles above to search for an equivalent written how-to.