In October, a group of youngsters from Tamil Nadu is all set to go to Santa Clara in the United States of America to attend the global Mozilla Summit where they will participate in discussions on how community-driven projects can change the world.

While teams representing many States will be attending the summit, the contingent from Tamil Nadu, including members of the team that translated the Mozilla Firefox web browser into Tamil, is the largest in the country. While this is a testament to the strength of computing and translation efforts in Tamil, much more needs to be done, say experts.

Tamil enthusiasts began making efforts to incorporate the language into computers in late seventies, and in a couple of international conferences, attempts were made to standardise bilingual and monolingual schemes. “However, the struggles are far from over. We don’t even have basic spell checkers or synonym generators for Tamil text,” said Ila Sundaram, assistant professor, Computational Tamil Studies, SRM University. 

He explained that there was no need for a Tamil keyboard because an interface that could change typed English letters into Tamil would do. “But Tamil, like many other Indian languages has been allotted just 256 spaces in universal coding which restricts the scope of Tamil typing. Tamil typing would require at least 400 spaces, like Chinese languages,” he added.

The lack of a standard Tamil font is a concern too. “Most government sites use images, not fonts, which makes it difficult to search or load Tamil Text. Some of them keep using old fonts such as Vanavil,” said Mr. Sundaram.

Recently, the State government decreed that a standard all character encoding system in Tamil be used but organisations are yet to shift to that, experts added.

“Also, browsers and web products in Tamil are not yet actively used in India though there is considerable patronage among members of the diaspora in Mauritius, Singapore and Malaysia,” said Arun Prakash, one of the participants of October’s conference.

While institutions such as IIT- Madras and Anna University have developed text-to speech editors in Tamil for the visually challenged, professionals such as Anna University professor Madhan Karky and celebrities such as Sruti Haasan are involved in Tamil computing.

“Translation is often considered inferior to development or coding.  Very few engineers want to take part. They think they cannot gain much from translation. So, there is a need to build awareness of the issue,” said Arun.

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