LIMA, Peru – When Irma Alvarez Ccoscco learned that the language she had spoken all her life, the Quechuahad been added to Google Translateshe ran to the computer to try it.
“I said, ‘That’s it. The day has finally arrived,’” recalls Alvarez Ccoscco, poet, teacher and digital activist, in a telephone interview. She started with a few basic sentences. “I didn’t want to be disappointed,” she said. “And yes, it worked.”
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It was more than a new communication tool; it was an affirmation that Quechua and its several million speakers in South America deserved a greater voice and visibility, said Alvarez Ccoscco.
her and the others Quechua activists have been asking for years. At the end, Quechua is one of the most spoken indigenous languages of the Americas. But now “a company as big as Google recognizes that,” she said. “It’s like saying to the world, ‘Look, we’re here!'”
Quechua — or more specifically Southern Quechua, the main language of the Quechua language family — was one of 24 languages Google added to its translation service in May. Collectively they are spoken by approximately 300 million people. Many, like Quechua, are primarily spoken languages that have long been marginalized, spoken by indigenous or minority groups.
O Google said the goal was to include underrepresented languages in technology to “connect communities around the world.”
The tool can also help healthcare professionals, teachers, government officials, law enforcement and others connect with speakers in their own communities.
“In the Andes, there is a lack of bilingual professionals in very critical areas,” said Dr. Américo Mendoza-Mori, a Quechua-speaking scholar at Harvard University who studies Indigenous identity and linguistics. . “There are millions of speakers who need to be cared for and treated like citizens of their own country.”
Eliana Cancha, a 26-year-old Peruvian nurse, said only two out of 10 health workers speak the Quechua language which is widely used in the region where she works, leaving many patients trying to explain what ails them by pointing to parts of their body. .
“They can’t express themselves in front of the doctor like they should,” said Cancha, a native Quechua speaker. “That means they’re not getting proper treatment.”
Quechua appeared among farmers and herders in the central Andes of Peru more than 1,500 years ago. By the 5th century it had expanded into two main groups, with even more variations, and by the 15th century the Incas adopted one of these as the lingua franca of their vast empire, stretching from Colombia to Argentina.
Today, it is estimated that Quechua languages are spoken by around 8-10 million people in South America – mainly in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Southern Quechua is by far the most widely spoken, with approximately 7 million speakers.
Until recently, Google Translate’s machine learning system needed to see translations from one language into other languages it knows to master it, said Isaac Caswell, a researcher at Google Translate. But the tool has so much experience now that it can learn to translate a new language with little more than text in that language.
Caswell likened the learning process to a polyglot locked in a room with nothing but a stack of books in a new language; if he had enough time, the polyglot might find out.
Underrepresented languages like Quechua have a growing online presence, and so Google’s translation model learned the language by selecting texts written in that language from the public web.
“As more and more communities come online, it’s more possible to do this stuff,” Caswell said.
O Lingalaa Central African language, has also recently been added to the Google Translate, although it is spoken by approximately 45 million people. European languages such as Swedish, Finnish or Catalan, with a much smaller number of native speakers, have been in the translation tool for years, mainly because they are overrepresented in online texts, said Caswell.
“People are celebrating,” said Maryk Francq Mavie Amonga, production assistant for the multilingual news service Africanews and a native Lingala speaker. “There are a lot of places that still don’t know about us.”
Just over a decade ago, Quechua was barely on the internet, said Alvarez Ccoscco, the activist.
But she and other Quechua language activists have been busy digitizing dictionaries, adapting open-source software for Quechua, writing Quechua blogs and e-magazines, and providing Quechua versions of everything from texts colonials and news to video games.
“Google is really joining this existing ecosystem of digital efforts to make sure the language is there,” said Harvard researcher Mendoza-Mori.
He said there has been a growing movement in the Quechua-speaking community in recent years that has embraced the language and challenged stereotypes that portray it as a relic of the past or a cultural curiosity.
After the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532, Quechua became a sign of backwardness or a source of suspicion by the new ruling class. Its use was officially banned after the indigenous leader Túpac Amaru II led an uprising that swept through the southern Andes in the late 18th century, ending its public torture, dismemberment and beheading.
Still, Quechua speakers continued to make up the majority of Peru’s population until the early 20th century.
But in 2017, the percentage of Peruvians who identified Quechua as their first language was just 14%.
As Quechua speakers migrated from the Andean highlands to the cities – some in search of opportunity, others uprooted by conflict – the language was not passed on to new generations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, bloody fighting between left-wing insurgents and state security forces decimated Quechua-speaking villages, leaving behind so many tortured bodies and mass graves that families of the “disappeared” continue to collect their remains.
In Lima, where many fled to escape, “you couldn’t speak Quechua openly because you would be considered a communist, a terrorist,” said Ricardo Flores, a rapper, historian and Quechua language teacher who grew up in part in San Juan de Lurigancho, the capital with a high concentration of speakers of the language.
Flores said that even today “guys in markets and parks pretend not to speak the language”.
“But they talk,” he said. “But they only talk at home.”
Such stigma weighs heavily on Quechua that it’s hard to know whether the language is growing or declining, Mendoza-Mori said. While Peru’s latest census recorded an increase in the number of speakers of the language, it may simply be because more people are willing to acknowledge that they speak it, he said.
Of all the Quechua translations Alvarez Ccoscco has tried, she says one in particular made her proud: “Musqusqaykimanta astawan karutaraq chayasaqku.”
It was a line written by Peruvian writer José María Arguedas in a poem dedicated to Túpac Amaru II, which she said Google more or less correctly translated as “We’re going to go further than you ever have. dream”. /TRANSLATION LÍVIA BUELONI GONÇALVES
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