By Melissa Bell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:29 PM
As Libya became the latest Arab country to experience violent protests, its flamboyant leader caused a stir online for a reason other than his attack on his citizens.
No one could figure out how to spell his name.
The Washington Post uses "Moammar Gaddafi." The Associated Press opts for "Gadhafi." The New York Times uses "Qaddafi." In 2009, ABC News reported 112 variations on the name.
"Will the Libyan leader lose power before the West agrees on how to spell his name?" Tom Breen, an Associated Press correspondent, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
The trouble comes from the transliteration of Arabic. There is no one defined system for converting Arabic sounds into written English. And if Western media can't get even one name straight, imagine the confusion when trying to explain rapidly-developing news in the Middle East.
It took the media until Tuesday to reach the closed-off country. Before that, much of the information - local video reports, tweets from within Libya and reports from the ground - was in Arabic.
To combat language barriers, a digital bridge is being built to crowd-source translation by pushing information in the original Arabic out through social media.
After the military opened fire in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a video was released of a small child being bathed. Sounds of Arabic being spoken could be heard in the background. At first, Andy Carvin of National Public Radio posted a link to the video and wrote that it was of an injured child, but a few minutes later he had to change his report: The child was dead, and the video showed the body being prepared for burial.
Carvin linked to a new video - the same scene as the last one, only it had English subtitles. The video was created by the group Alive.in, a news project from Small World News and the Web site Universal Subtitles that has been working to add subtitles to videos from the Middle East.
"Washing a child for burial in Benghazi," the second video says. Now the Arabic can be understood: "A child! What was his crime, you dogs!"
As a community news group, Alive.in has been sharing reported stories told by local people around the world since 2005, but it has found international recognition for its translation services during the anti-government protests.
"It's impossible for the international community to really get what's going on," Brian Conley, one of the founders of the project, said. "One issue is vetting a source; another issue is understanding that source. We want to network the world better."
During the Egyptian revolution, Conley used Twitter to source translators. Hundreds of people stepped in, choosing which messages to translate by using a Google document. Alive.in edits the finished translation, though Conley acknowledges that the program is a bit "ad hoc."
Crowd sourcing is flawed and relies on the dedication of large numbers of people, but Conley said he hopes that refined technology will speed the process in the future.
While fully comprehensible, automated translation services are a ways off, there have been several recent advancements: Google Chrome automatically recognizes when a Web site is in a different language and offers to translate the page. Word Lens, an iPhone app, enables users to take a photo of a foreign language on a sign or menu, and it instantly translates the phrase.
The long shadow of the Tower of Babel is slowly receding.