The Web In Translation

August 17, 2010

The FCC-funded research project that Dharma and I directed last spring, Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities, explored why about one third of Americans do not have high speed internet at home across a wide-range of demographic groups, focusing on those often overlooked by communications, policy, and market research. This included investigating the web-related experiences of new Americans with no- or low- English language literacy.

Librarians, other community intermediaries, and users themselves reported that many basic but critical services related to establishing a connection to the U.S. – such as immigration and citizenship applications – have moved online. In most cases this means that to successfully navigate such a service applicants are expected to have access to an internet connection and computing device, to be a skilled computer user, and to have the generally high level of English literacy required for official and legal documents. While some study participants had these skills, others reported turning to trusted community intermediaries such as librarians for help.

Over the past few months I have come to appreciate how difficult navigating the web in a second language can be. Living in Stockholm, with a decent but not fluent command of the language, I have gradually been learning to use the web in Swedish. I have encountered challenges in the following areas:

Work: While the websites of many business and institutions in Sweden are in English – catering to an international audience – the most up-to-date information, such as news or recent events can often only be found in Swedish. Less official, but equally useful sites, such as those of professional organizations exist only in Swedish, for example, Antropool – a group for anthropologists. In addition it is often difficult to determine what keywords will yield the most relevant search. Sometimes the direct translation of an English word to Swedish isn’t the one in common use. For instance: the word “research” is also used in Swedish, but the more common word for research is “forskning”. Finally, skimming through a list of search results is challenging because I must look at each result more slowly and carefully than I would in English to understand what it is: using the web becomes a much slower experience.

Getting to know a city: When I first arrived in Stockholm I used Google Maps – a tool I use constantly in New York – to look up unfamiliar addresses. Later, through conversation, I discovered that most people use the mapping website While the interface is in Swedish (and therefore takes more time for me to navigate) I find that its results are more accurate and easier to interpret in terms of finding things in Stockholm. In addition, as in the US, user generated reviews – such as for restaurants – have become an important tool for navigating Swedish cities. Because they are written by local residents these reviews are typically in Swedish. While I can understand them it is difficult for me to make a judgment about the review’s quality. Is the quality of the reviewer’s writing good or bad? What kind of client is the restaurant or service catering towards?

Official matters: For activities like online banking, registering for courses, or determining whether one can drive in Sweden with a US license a whole different level of cultural, linguistic and internet fluency is required – often necessitating a detailed knowledge of the Swedish social system, which is something a dictionary is of little help with!

Online transactions: One might assume that purchasing things online – such as books – might be relatively similar from country to country. But, this process has some important basic differences in Sweden and the US. For example, in the US I would be very wary of any site that asked me for my social security number. But, in Sweden is not uncommon for a website to ask the user for their “personnummer” (the Swedish equivalent). That is, online safety can have a cultural component which is not immediately obvious, and potentially dangerous for users who are unfamiliar with local practices.

All in all my time in Sweden has shown me that experiences of the web – and one’s ability to navigate it – can vary significantly depending on linguistic and cultural knowledge. That is, although one might be a sophisticated internet user in one language and cultural context these skills do not necessarily translate to other contexts. For instance, although the U.S., England, India, Australia, Canada, etc. all have significant English-speaking populations an American might not be familiar with the most respected online news sites in India, something that would be obvious to an Indian-national. This challenges, or at least adds complexity to, the notion that the web is a global tool in the sense that anyone, anywhere can access any kind of information.

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