Twitter, Translations, and the New Geopolitics

Microblogging is growing into a foreign affairs phenomenon: While the United States government embraces Twittering in Arabic and Persian, Twitter is quietly recruiting an army of savvy geeks to develop platforms in multiple foreign languages.

The State Department is embracing Twitter-based public diplomacy outreach with a vengeance with the launch of separate Arabic and Persian-language feeds over the past few days. Coincidentally, Twitter is planning a crowdsourced expansion onto multiple foreign language platforms.

Both the Persian- and Arabic-language Twitter feeds are aimed at tech-savvy native speakers. The State Department's Arabic feed, @USAbilAraby (USA in Arabic) launched late last week and is primarily dedicated to messages promoting U.S. positions on regional events and politics, with a heavy nod toward the ongoing youth revolts in the Arab world.

However, the Persian-language feed, @USAdarFarsi (USA in Farsi), has taken a much more assertive line toward bolstering Iran's opposition. The cold relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic means that the State Department is comfortable giving succor to protesters, something that is not possible in current stress points like Bahrain--where the United States Fifth Fleet is based in an island emirate rocked by demonstrations by both tech-savvy youth and disenfranchised Shiites.

Twitter messages on @USAdarFarsi are openly encouraging Iranian protesters:

On the Twitter account, USAdarFarsi, the State Department said it "recognizes historic role of social media among Iranians We want to join in your conversations."

In another tweet, the State Department said: "#Iran has shown that the activities it praised Egyptians for it sees as illegal, illegitimate for its own people." In a third tweet, it said "US calls on #Iran to allow people to enjoy same universal rights to peacefully assemble, demonstrate as in Cairo."

While @USAdarFarsi is written in colloquial Persian, the Arabic-language Twitter feed instead opts for Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)--a formal register of Arabic used for television, newspaper, radio, speeches and books throughout the Arab world but not actually used in daily conversation. To most Arabic speakers, MSA sounds impossibly pretentious--the rough Middle Eastern equivalent of posting Twitter messages in Shakespearean English.

Most Arabic Twitter and Facebook users instead opt for an informal mixture of MSA and spoken local dialect, or the Latin character-based, slang-filled Arabic chat alphabet. However, it is likely for the best that the State Department is embracing MSA: While Arabic-language posts written in Latin characters may be more familiar to the bulk of Arab computer users, the risk for embarrassing typos or cyberculture faux pases is far too high for this to be a viable option.

Meanwhile, Twitter is crowdsourcing translation of the Twitter platform into multiple languages. The newly established Twitter Translation Center is currently seeking French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish translators. According to Twitter, functionality translations will be crowdsourced:

The new Translation Center allows any Twitter user to sign up, choose a language and begin translating immediately. Translators can now help localize twitter.com, mobile.twitter.com, Twitter for iPhone and iPad, Twitter for Android, Twitter Help and the Twitter Business Center. We also improved the Center’s search functionality, added phrase tagging, created special translator profiles, enabled commenting on phrases and much more.

Fast Company previously reported on Twitter's recent launch of Korean- and Arabic-language platforms.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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