Did You Know There’s a Tablecloth in Your Phone? Your Translator Does!

Did You Know There’s a Tablecloth in Your Phone? Your Translator Does!

We are celebrating the linguistic diversity of our worldwide community of fixers!

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: After nearly a year of translating for iFixit, I still have to look up the translations of some types of screw heads. The respective Wikipedia-page is bookmarked in my browser; I search for the English word, memorise the image of the screw head, switch to the German version of the article, look for the image and there you are: “hex screw” is “Inbusschraube” in German. 

Today we are celebrating International Mother Language Day. At iFixit, our goal is to teach everybody in the world how to repair every thing. Your native language is very important to us—we’re well aware that when it comes to opening an electronic device for the first time, many have doubts and are a bit nervous. If, on top of that, we ask you to carry out the repair with a guide in a language you don’t speak or only roughly understand, chances of success are poor. Translating repair guides and wikis into your mother tongue is therefore crucial to our mission. And for me, that means learning words like “hex screw” and “thermal paste.” Not what I expected when I was learning English at school.  

You never stop learning, people say. That’s certainly true when it comes to technical terminology.

If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you probably remember learning vocabulary by heart, using one of those notebooks with a line down the middle, one language on each side. Or maybe you had flashcards—in my school days they were actual paper cards; now there’s a wide variety of flashcard apps to choose from. And although it’s true that when you start translating for iFixit, you find yourself looking up technical terms every few minutes, it’s not actually words like “capacitor” or “soldering” that are hardest to translate. The real challenge lies in the little differences, the idiosyncrasies that make each language so special and translating so much fun.

The reason we don’t all speak English yet is not because it’s hard to learn. The reason is that in each and every one of the more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, there are things you can only properly express in that particular language. Every language has its own beauty, its own regularities, its own character. And even seemingly straightforward words like “screwdriver” are never used in exactly the same way in another language. Translation therefore means much more than looking up words in another language and stringing them together in a grammatically correct form. Translation means understanding the message, understanding the people whose language you are translating it into, and recreating the message in that language. A translation can never be perfect, just as communication itself is never perfect. Which is precisely what makes it so interesting.

Crowd of FixFest 2022 attendees
A global community: Fixers at the Fixfest in Brussels 2022.

Do you want an example? I always struggle to find a good translation for “community” in German. The translation you’ll find in the dictionary is “Gemeinschaft”, but that’s not quite the same thing. While a “community” is a group of people brought together by a common characteristic—like a common language or a shared interest—a “Gemeinschaft” refers to people who are grouped by somewhat more formal criteria, like people sharing a flat (Wohngemeinschaft), living in the same village (Dorfgemeinschaft) or belonging to the same religious group (Religionsgemeinschaft). These two words just don’t quite mean the same thing, and they don’t feel the same. So usually, I just “translate” “community” with “Community”. And I’m not the only one, even some German dictionaries do the same.

Our iFixit community is spread around the entire globe. The only continent where nobody has taken their repair pledge so far is Antarctica (that doesn’t mean the scientists stationed there don’t read our manuals—leave a comment if you happen to be one of them!). I tried counting the countries and the languages spoken on the map of the iFixit repair pledge, but had to admit defeat—there are just so many of them. The twelve languages that iFixit is currently available in don’t even come close to the multitude of languages spoken by our community members. But they’re a start, and we are already working on translating our user interface into a total of 39 languages, including Welsh (yes, really). 

People from all over the world have taken the iFixit repair pledge. Repair brings us together—and so does translation.

And we have a lot of fun doing it! Because the thing is, when two languages meet, funny things happen. Take our “hex screw” from earlier: if you translate both words individually, you get something like “Verwünschungsschraube” in German—a screw that can be used to curse (hex) somebody. Now that’s something to consider next time you are trying to get through particularly stubborn glue! Or “ribbon cable”—“nappe” in French, which also means “tablecloth.” Try fitting one of those in your phone… Magical worlds, only a dictionary away.

Who would have thought such innocent looking screws could be full of magic? (Image: Susan Wright via Wikimedia Commons)

Then there are words that sound similar in two languages, but mean very different things—these pairs are also known as false friends. Let me share a little anecdote with you. You may know that Dutch and German are quite similar—in fact, if you speak German and English, you stand a good chance of roughly understanding a conversation in Dutch. A few months ago, I came across the Dutch word for “translate”, which is “vertalen.” That sounds very similar to German “verteilen” (which means “distribute”), so I wrote to Thomas, our proofreader for Dutch, how much I liked the idea behind the Dutch word. “Like sharing knowledge, making information available to everyone”, I wrote. “Quite a different concept from “übersetzen,” which essentially just means to put something from one place to another.” Unfortunately, though, it turned out that “vertalen” is derived from “taal” (language) and just refers to putting something from one language into another. Oh well, it was a nice thought.

I’m sticking to my take on that word though. Because sharing knowledge is, truly, what we do here at iFixit. And by putting an emphasis on translation, we are taking that even further: Nobody should be disadvantaged because they don’t speak the lingua franca of the day. Every language brings unique concepts and perspectives to the table, and with each language that disappears, humanity loses something precious. So whatever your native language(s) may be, treasure and celebrate them! Not just today, but every day of your life.

What are your native languages, and what do you love about them? Let us know in the comments! And if you want to help us make repair information available to speakers of your language, take a look at the languages currently available for translating guides and wikis or help us translate our user interface.