Making Sure Linux Doesn’t Get Lost in Translation

The worldwide open source community shares a common overall goal: better software through collaboration and peer review. It’s difficult enough to achieve this task even when most of the participants share a common language. Building bridges between different parts of the world — especially between Eastern and Western societies — adds an entirely new element to the equation.

The Linux Foundation (LF) is pushing for more international cooperation to provide an easier path for governments and vendors to work with Linux kernel developers, but much of that success will depend on how well the Linux communities can weather some formidable cultural storms.

To that end, LF officials announced an agreement it signed Oct. 1 with the IPA (Information Technology Promotion Agency), an agency funded by the Japanese government to foster the use of open source technology.

The agreement spells out the terms of joint collaboration with Linux developers and product engineers in Japan. Japan is the only other country in which LF has an office, although the LF is developing a presence in numerous other European and Asian countries. It plans to ink a similar agreement with China by next year.

“The LF plans to copy its successful collaboration strategy in China. That will be our next big push for next year,” Amanda McPherson, the director of marketing for the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

Patching Problems

LF’s partnership with Japan’s IPA is the result of a series of Linux symposiums the foundation holds in Japan three times a year, McPherson said.

The foundation brings in leading Linux kernel developers to speak to Japanese engineers. This gathering provides a direct connection to facilitate concerns that often arise through cultural differences.

For instance, Japanese software developers are often at odds with the common practices followed in the U.S. and in Europe regarding the posting of criticisms and corrections to items involving installation difficulties and kernel patches. Similar issues often develop over translations used within the Linux OS because the Japanese often use and interpret the English language differently, explained McPherson.

“It is valuable for Japanese software engineers to meet in person with Linux kernel developers,” she said.

Super Supporters

LF officials have set a cooperative tone with IPA officials and product vendors in Japan to find solutions to cultural antagonisms. The foundation membership includes a number of large Japanese companies as founders and members, noted McPherson. These include Toshiba, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, Mitsubishi Electric and Konica Minolta.

The LF’s success in establishing collaboration in Japan is driven by the large Linux following there and the country’s large economy that supports so many vendors.

“The level of IT support for Linux is much more sophisticated in Japan. They are so far ahead of other countries in their use of Linux,” said McPherson. “There is so much more Linux activity there due to advances advocating open source technology.”

Language Impediment

With English the dominant language used by Linux developers in much of the world, Japanese and Chinese software and hardware developers have a huge hurdle to overcome. Having enthusiastic attendees at symposiums staged in Japan does help, but culture and language differences still get in the way.

“There are, of course, a number of stumbling blocks here. The use of English in development circles makes things hard for people who are not comfortable in that language,” Jon Corbet, executive editor of LWN.net, told LinuxInsider. LWN.net is an online source of information about Linux and open source software.

The oftentimes outspoken nature of the development community does not mesh well with the more polite nature of many Asian societies, said Corbet, who attended the last symposium LF presented in Japan. Being raked over the coals for a simple mistake is much harder for Japanese developers to handle than European developers.

“The mailing lists can be a sometimes harsh place even for Western developers. They can be truly hostile and perhaps even career-threatening for Easterners,” Corbet noted.

Coding Collaboration

The biggest impediment to growing more collaboration among Western and Asian Linux developers is rooted in the cultural differences in working together. For instance, the process of sticking out one’s neck by posting code only to be criticized is intimidating for anybody who is not used to it, Corbet noted.

“It is far harder when you come from a culture where you don’t speak the language, people do not normally criticize each others’ work in a frank way, and perhaps, people are less inclined to agitate for change in the first place,” he said.

However, a change in approach by Linux communities will be needed to cultivate more collaboration with Japanese and Chinese Linux developers, noted the president of the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA).

“The OSA believes there is room for improving collaboration between English-speaking and non-English-speaking open source community members,” Dominic Sartorio told LinuxInsider. “However, I’m afraid there are no silver bullets here, at least not until Google’s translation engine becomes as good as a U.N. (United Nations) translator.”

Even that would not account for the way cultural differences affect how people choose to collaborate and the tools they prefer to use, he suggested. Until then, setting up partnerships with local consortia to promote specific projects in specific regions, as the Linux Foundation has done in Japan, is a good approach, he concluded.

Redmond Revulsion

While cultural factors will shape future progress in drawing Asian Linux communities into the Western fold, Japanese Linux followers may be more focused on providing alternatives to the Windows OS. The trend for Linux in Japan is using the Linux OS as a national replacement of Microsoft Windows.

“Japan is pushing to legislate the use of Linux as a replacement for Windows. While they are not specifically trying to supplant Microsoft, Japan has been leading the charge for Linux development for years,” LF’s McPherson said.

Not being locked into Microsoft gives developing countries a way to participate in the local economy, she explained.

Fixing Forums

Getting the divergent Linux communities to play nicely with each other may be easier said than done. Some groups have handled the problem associated with low levels of English usage by having one person represent the entire group to the community. These forum spokespersons can then function as a pass-through mechanism to handle code and comments, Corbet suggested.

The Linux community is already doing some work to translate core documentation into otherlanguages. This can help developers in Asian countries get started.

“The larger problem of enabling a global community to communicate freely is going to remain hard to solve, though,” Corbet said.

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