Finally, technology has taken a step forward in democratizing its reach. Google Translate will now translate Quechua, one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in Latin America.
As reported by the New York Times, Google added more than 24 languages to its translation service, including Southern Quechua, the primary language of the Quechua language family.
Together, they are spoken by some 300 million people. Many, like Quechua, are mostly oral languages that have long been marginalized, spoken by indigenous or minority groups.
Google said the goal was to include underrepresented languages in the technology to “connect communities around the world.”
The tool could also help health workers, teachers, civil servants, police officers, and others get in touch with speakers in their own communities.
“In the Andes, there’s a lack of bilingual professionals in very critical fields,” said Dr. Américo Mendoza-Mori, a Quechua-speaking scholar at Harvard University who studies Indigenous and linguistic identity. “There are millions of speakers that need to be served and treated as citizens of their own country.”
“Runa Simi” or Quechua was born on the central coast of the Lima region more than 1,500 years ago and spread from there to Cusco and the entire Sacred Valley of the Incas, expanding into the southeastern territory along with the Inca empire. The victors imposed their language as a unifying force, thus creating the language of the state.
The term “Runa simi” was changed to “Kichua” or “Quechua” in the work “Arte y vocabulario de la lengua general del Perú llamada Quichua”, written by Fray Domingo de Santo Tomás in the XVI century.
Today, it is estimated that between 8 and 10 million people speak Quechua in South America, mainly in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Southern Quechua is by far the most widely spoken, with up to seven million speakers.
Until recently, Google Translate’s machine-learning system needed to see translations from one language to others it knows to master it, Isaac Caswell, a research scientist at Google Translate, told the Times. But now, the tool is so experienced that it can learn to translate a new language with little more than the text in that language.