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  2. "This language is not only spoken in villages." Why a resident of Petrozavodsk is translating the interface of vk.com into Karelian

"This language is not only spoken in villages." Why a resident of Petrozavodsk is translating the interface of vk.com into Karelian

Alexander Gnetnev
Natalya Vorobey
Photo from Natalya Vorobey’s archive
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Natalya Vorobey from Petrozavodsk is translating the interface of the VKontakte Social Network (vk.com) into the Karelian language. She insists that the national language can be organically integrated into the modern world’s trends. The project’s participants have translated more than 40 thousand keys (words and sentences in the management of a social network) over five years. As a result, a beta-version of vk.com in Karelian has already been released. The translators continue working, as the social network is regularly updated with new applications, features, and games. Their work is entirely pro bono, and the language’s popularizers are inviting the Karelian language experts to cooperate. Natalya Vorobey told 7x7 in an interview why she had taken it on and why one could speak Karelian not only to talk about country life and kalitkas — national pies, favored by tourists.


What is the key message of the project of translating the interface of vk.com into Karelian?

"The message is that the Karelian language can be spoken to discuss any things, objects, and all sorts of topics. This is not just a language spoken in villages to talk about cows, potatoes, kalitkas [traditional Karelian pies]. This is a language to talk about some high-tech solutions including various fields of video, audio and the interface of vk.com."

How long does it take to translate the interface of a social network?

"This has been going on for a long time. The thing is that this is Maria Vladimirovna Kundozerova’s initiative. She is a researcher at the Institute of Language, Literature and History, a folklorist, and a native Karelian speaker. We came with the idea when I was the chairman of the Union of the Karelian People Karelian Public Organization and Maria was a member of the board. At that time, in 2016, we were both on maternity leave and, apparently, had nothing to do. We gathered right then. If you go to the Languages section on vk.com, there are a lot of languages of 'small' peoples. And there are a lot of languages that are not state, for example. 80% must be translated for a beta-version to be released, so that any user of vk.com could start using it. Then, in 2016-2017, we translated 80% and released the beta-version.

The project is an initiative of activists, ordinary people who love the Karelian language, in order to surround themselves with Karelian as much as possible.

Those who study Karelian are in our focus. The thing is that there are not many Karelians in the Republic of Karelia, and it is difficult to organize a Karelian environment in which you would constantly use the language."

Which interface elements did you have to translate?

"Different kinds of keys [words and sentences in the management of a social network]. Some keys consist of a single word. For example, the ‘search’ or ‘back’ keys. And some key say something like, ‘You requested the recovery of your password on vk.com, if you did not do this, ignore this email.’ A whole phrase. There may be several paragraphs. So we started with the easiest keys, because we needed to reach 80%. The work gradually became more complicated.

We worked with native speakers a lot, because the vocabulary is new. We looked up how the Finns would say it, how we could say it. For example, the word ‘password’ is a new word for Karelian. Everything is clear with ‘administration’, but there is a vocabulary associated with applications: ‘activate’, ‘account’, ‘antivirus’. Of course, we looked up how it sounded in English, looked for a description, then — what word the Finns used, what word was used in Russian. Much work was done. Even if this was a new word, it was necessary to form it according to the rules of Karelian, so that it could organically fit into modern Karelian and go further into the world and be used, including in newspapers, on the radio. The world is developing. When we can use new words, when the language is developing, it all speaks well to the fact that the language is alive. It really heartens."

Интерфейс «ВКонтакте» на карельском языке

The interface of vk.com in Karelian

How can you describe a person that is actually going to use the interface of vk.com translated into Karelian?

"This could be a young or a middle-aged person. A person who is interested in Karelian culture. It does not have to be a 'hard core' Karelian, a native speaker. This could be a person who is interested in different peoples’ culture. A global citizen who respects new cultures and would like to study them. They will choose Karelian on vk.com for a certain period of time. And next month, they will choose Mordovian, for example, as far as the Finno-Ugric languages are concerned. In Mari. Or, for example, in Udmurt, in Nenets. This actually could be a native speaker who lives in the village of Yushkozero or Voknavolok [ancient villages in Karelia]."

Does Karelian have any features that you have to take into account when working? Is it possible or not to translate whatever you want into it?

"Yes, you can translate whatever you want. There is a special feature on vk.com: keys have a connotation of gender. Let’s take the 'a user returned to chat' key. There are two genders in Russian: masculine and feminine. But there is no gender in Karelian, so it is easier to translate keys into Karelian in this regard. The word 'returned' applies to both genders. Even if it is a brand-new word, you need to translate it so that people understand what you are saying. Therefore, we take derivation into account: whether new words in Karelian are derived by adding suffixes or prefixes. We take sentence construction into account. There is one word order in the Russian version, there will be a different word order in Karelian, simply because there are cases, some government patterns, the syntax is different."

Наталья Воробей

Natalya Vorobey. Photo from Natalya Vorobey’s archive

Is this work more of an ideological nature, i.e. to once again draw attention to the existence of the Karelian language? Or is the translation pursuing purely practical purposes, i.e. for people who want to speak it and see vk.com in it?

"I think both things come together here. I am a doer myself. There has to be a specific job, a specific goal, a specific project, and specific results. The republic is called Karelia. This actually makes paying more attention to the Karelian language and its development possible. This can be a brand given that everyone uses vk.com, even the head of the republic has a page on vk.com, and he actively uses it and communicates with people via social networks.

It is clear that not everyone can afford working for free. And, of course, it would be great if social agencies or the Ministry of National Policy supported the project financially. There are very good specialists in the Karelian language both in Oma Mua Karelian-language newspaper and in television, who, perhaps, could join this work, if there was at least a little financial aid."

There are two people in the team of translators of vk.com’s interface into Karelian. Their work is pro bono, no fees being provided. The social activists are inviting the Karelian language experts to join the project.


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