Oh no, my cow just fell over—but I can reboot

Suppose you need to translate technological computer terms, such as “browser” or “cache” or even “crash” into another language in which such technological terms are absent? How literal can you be—or is metaphor what is needed?

How do we convey meaning effectively when the cultural building blocks are so different?

Take this imaginative approach:

“Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. ‘Crash’ became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying) . . . In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, ‘cached pages’ became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer ‘windows’ became ‘eyes.’”

The translation project is also a great example of goal synergy: “As well as bringing the linguistically excluded online, localisation may keep small languages alive.”

Analogies and metaphors are part and parcel of our communicative repertoire and we can use them more or less purposively, and more or less creatively. Metaphors and analogies are not curlicues—they are enmeshed in how we think. They are not mere ripples on the surface but currents that move the stream—and us—forward.

As we observe in our book Innovating Minds, analogies:

“are clearly important in the generation of our ideas but they can also serve several other functions in fostering positive creative change and development.  Analogies enable us to use what we already know in order to better understand or grasp something that is novel or less familiar.  In one study of new product development projects, 6 of 16 people interviewed explicitly noted that analogies helped to promote communication between team members, designers, and engineers during new product development.  Two of the interviewees even stated that enhanced communication was the most important aspect of the analogy in the given project.  The communicative and explanatory functions of analogies may prove especially pivotal in bridging between teams and individuals with quite disparate backgrounds, task priorities, and thought processes.”