Here’s a post from Slacktivist, lambasting yet another scene in the Left Behind series of books.

This scene features an Upstanding American Reporterdude and a Not Christian Yet Rabbidude talking to the Two Witnesses of the Revelation. Of course, since this is an epic, mysterious scene of Biblical nature, everyone hears the speech of the Witnesses in the appropriate language.

I just realised this particular scene also illustrated one problem that the Biblical authors didn’t address.

The Reporterdude speaks English. Rabbidude speaks Hebrew. They hear the Witnesses speak to them in their own languages. So far so good.

But what language does the Rabbidude actually speak in this scene?

Is he speaking in English, for the benefit of the Reporterdude? Wouldn’t that make his head spin? He’d have to think of the questions in English, then hear the answers in Hebrew, right? Or is he asking the questions in Hebrew, then translating them to the Reporterdude again, with his hazy understanding of English? (The Reporterdude has no use for learning Hebrew - he has automatically become a KJV-onlyist.)

This is the problem of speaking in tongues: you may be having a fruitful one-on-one conversation, but there’s a good chance that people who sit in the same room can’t tell what the heck is going on. You can only have fruitful conversation with other people if they also understand all of the languages.

And this is not just a fictional or mythical problem. It’s also a real-world problem, thanks to the automatic translation and interface localisation.

When you design, say, a website, you have to make some pretty fundamental choices about languages. Some websites are highly community-oriented, and in these sites, the UI choice doesn’t matter; the community will develop its own standards on which languages should be used. International sites get their own English sections and own little corners for people from all around the world to talk in their native tongues.

But some sites aren’t community-oriented. In a lot of informational or business sites, user interface language choice is part of establishing the communications. If your business website shows buttons in Finnish, I, as a potential customer, immediately assume that that you’re doing business in Finland - finding out that the content management software just automatically sniffs my browser settings is disappointing. Years ago, Plone-based sites used to do this. They’ve fortunately wisened up.

There is no mysterious automatic ways to ensure there won’t be communications problems. If the authors of Left Behind had paid any attention to the details, they might have noticed that there’s two people in the room who can understand what the Witnesses are saying, but would have problems understanding each other properly. This is what automatic translation does to you: You just assume everyone understands you, when they have different expectations of what you provide. The use of language on user communities is dictated by community standards. People consciously agree to use whatever languages they understand. Businesspeople and organisations have to make conscious decisions to represent themselves properly on the Web and choose languages that their audience understands, and use those languages properly. That is something that automation can’t do.

(Please don’t make an internationally syndicated editorial cartoon along the lines of “he’s not really speaking in tongues, he’s just using Google Translate”. …’cause that’s the whole joke.)