Google Translate adds Quechua to its platform

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By Mitra Taj, The New York Times Company

LIMA, Peru — When Irma Alvarez Ccoscco heard that the language she has spoken her entire life, Quechua, had been added to Google Translate, she hurried to her computer to try it out.

“I said: ‘This is it. The day has finally arrived,’” Alvarez Ccoscco, a poet, teacher and digital activist, recalled in a phone interview. She started with some basic sentences. “I didn’t want to be disappointed,” she said. “And yes, it worked.”

It was more than a new tool for communication; it was vindication that Quechua and its several million speakers in South America deserved greater voice and visibility, Alvarez Ccoscco said.

She and other Quechua activists had been making that argument for years. After all, Quechua is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in the Americas. But now, “a company as big as Google says so,” she said. “It’s like saying to the world, ‘look, here we are!’”

Quechua — or more precisely southern Quechua, the main language in the Quechua linguistic family — was one of 24 languages that Google added to its translation service in May. Collectively, 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 aim was to include languages that are underrepresented in technology to “connect communities all over the world.”

The tool could also help health care workers, teachers, civil servants, police officers and others connect 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.”

Eliana Cancha, a 26-year-old Peruvian nurse, said only two health workers out of 10 speak the Quechua language that is widely used in the region where she works, forcing many patients to try to explain what is ailing them by pointing at parts of their body.

“They can’t express themselves with the doctor as they should be able to,” said Cancha, a native Quechua speaker. “That means they’re not getting proper treatment.

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