Running On Empty

Running on empty

This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for a while now, as I wasn’t sure when the right time would be to publish it. It is basically my personal reflection on the last 5 years I have worked doing translations for free and open source software (FOSS) and a few lessons I learned along the way. It is also a rant against those who took my labor for granted. Hopefully this quick summary will help you decide whether you want to continue reading the rest of the post or not.

My adventures in the translation (or localization) world started some time in the middle of 2005. I had just started using Ubuntu as my main distribution and being carried away by the buzz and excitement surrounding this new comer, I started looking for ways to “give back”. Not that I hadn’t tried it before, but to tell you the truth, Ubuntu had back then the only friendly and welcoming community out there that wouldn’t treat you with scorn and arrogance if you were a new user.

Eventually I got to learn about the Ubuntu Brazil team and their effort to translate the desktop applications into the Brazilian Portuguese language. Now, I’ve been living in the United Stated for about 2 decades now and technological terms and jargon in Portuguese had never really entered into my vocabulary. In other words, I had absolutely no idea how to say things like “hard drive”, “File”, “Copy, or anything really in Portuguese. But I was determined to lend a helping hand and proceeded to learn on my own and by asking around.

Now, this is not a post about Ubuntu, so I’ll fast forward a bit to the time I became the coordinator for the Ubuntu Brazilian Translation team and was “in charge” of getting this massive collection of applications translated into Brazilian Portuguese before every single release. It was hard work but at the end of the day it felt great to know that more Brazilians would be able to enjoy GNU/Linux in their native tongue. Heck, under my leadership we delivered several releases of Ubuntu with very high levels of translations and absolutely no thank you from those profiting from out work!

After a couple of years I started to feel pretty good about my background in the software translations world. Filled with the best of intentions and the whole “Ubuntu” philosophy, I approached a few upstream translation teams to offer some help and see if our team could lend them a hand. Oddly enough, most refused my offer which only made me more confused. If they were struggling to get to 100% translations, why would they refuse help from “seasoned translators” such ourselves?

After organizing a few IRC meetings where many didn’t show up, some of the GNOME Brazil guys decided to give me a chance and hear my proposal. In the end we settled on the following plan: We, the “Ubuntu guys” would provide the labor (our team was much bigger than all other teams put together), and the GNOMErs would tell us what to do, how to do it, and tell us to “do it over” if our work did not conform with their standards. If this sounds a bit one sided to you, it’s because it was. There was some unexplained hostility towards us that we could not understand. Some of the members of my team eventually excused themselves, telling me in private how frustrating the whole experience was. “We’re breaking our backs here and they treat us like garbage,” said a disgruntled translator. This was in 2006.

This same type of treatment followed us wherever we went. Always the unprovoked hostility and unwillingness to work together. It wasn’t until around the middle of 2007 that someone finally broke the silence and told me: “You guys got the heart in the right place, but did you know that nothing that you have ever translated for Ubuntu comes back our way?" I didn’t know what to say. "What do you mean?" We’re good guys… the whole World benefits from our work… doesn’t it?"

Turns out I had been mistaken about the benefits of doing translations for a distribution. Turns out also that a lot of upstream translators who are not Ubuntu users (and therefore do not have an account in Launchpad) also have strong feelings against the work being done by the “Ubuntu guys”. But instead of channeling their ill feelings toward the entity that designed the machinery, their anger fell on the translators, peons in the whole scheme of things.

I’m glad to say that I woke up from the stupor that had held me for quite some time in a state of delirium and even fanboyism. Yes,I was an Ubuntu fanboy not too long ago! I too drank from the koolaid and was a major source of free PR and goodwill for Canonical. It was early 2007 when I finally moved on and decided to work directly with the upstream projects, embracing a new world full of opportunities and chances for someone as dedicated as myself.

Boy, was I wrong about certain things! For a long time the stigma of having done translations for a distribution stuck to me, causing many unnecessary discussions and personal attacks from people who I had never met or heard before. Worse of all, the internal interests and political agendas within the smaller groups was very harsh and no matter how many packages I translated or how many hours I spent organizing, teaching, reviewing and translating massive documents, I was never given the acknowledgement by my peers or anyone for that matter. Did you know that GNOME 2.26 was literally translated by two people into Brazilian Portuguese? And that one of them was yours truly?

But I kept going for a long time, choosing to ignore all of these things and focus in the main cause: deliver a completely localized operating system for those who speak Brazilian Portuguese. Through the years I saw coordinators and committers being replaced by people with no background what so ever in translations or even from outside the team! There has always been intrigue and malicious interests in pretty much every community out there, but I had always hoped that one day my hard work would be recognized and aspired to one day become the coordinator for the GNOME Brazilian team. Alas, that day never came.

But I kept going and joined several other teams who received me with open arms. For quite some time I was the sole translator, reviewer and committer for Xfce, LXDE, and Openbox. I even joined the effort to localize MeeGo and make it upstream friendly. Whatever free time I managed to get my hands on was spent either translating, reviewing or committing translations to these projects (and GNOME, off course). Even while juggling a brand new career with a steep learning curve, a second child, moving to a different state and seeing my bank account dwindle down, I still made the time to keep going.

Until I ran out of gas! This morning I have chosen to step down as the coordinator for the LXDE and MeeGo teams and have already passed this position to one of my teammates. I am also stepping down as the administrator of these 2 teams in order to focus on my family and some of my pet projects. I will eventually pass the coordination of the Xfce team as well and will only act as a member of said teams, offering a helping hand every now and then (this already applies to GNOME).

This does not mean that I’m no longer involved with the localization of free and open source software. It only means that I’m now sitting on the backseat and am happy to let someone else drive. It also means that I feel unappreciated and even though the thought that every single GNOME user who runs his/her system in Brazilian Portuguese is doing it because of the fruit of my labor and others makes me feel very proud, the truth is that it does not put food on my table.

I have to finish this post by publicly thanking Margie Foster from the MeeGo project for being the only person who has shown appreciation and gratitude for the work I’ve done! Really, thank you!

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