Nurturing a Multilingual Culture at Takram

Jonathan Skjøtt
Jun 1 · 7 min read
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Language is important at Takram. We are careful to use the right words to describe what we do and over the years a language unique to Takram has come into being within our studios.

In our practice, we are mindful about using language to create an environment which makes a diverse set of people feel valued. In the past, through analogies such as Pendulum Thinking, we have talked at length about what vocabulary is required to nurture a design engineering practice that welcomes people with backgrounds in fields ranging from art to science and engineering.

Furthermore, in the last couple of years, with more people joining Takram who don’t speak Japanese as their first language as well as the creation of studios in London and New York, we have become acutely aware of the importance of multilingual communication. With several languages being used in spaces such as Slack we felt the need to consider, more deeply, the role different languages have in our community. We cherish the richness of thought and expression as embedded within languages. So, to us it was clear that the spaces we share should encourage the use of multiple languages. At the same time care also needs to be put into ensuring that everyone feel welcome and comfortable despite perhaps not being able to understand all the languages used.

In the case of Slack it might seem tempting to create separate workspaces and channels so that only one language is used at any given time. However, as a studio that considers the synthesis of disciplines as part of our core ethos, this solution seemed backward. Just like our practices are based on an amalgam of disciplines, we want multiple languages to exist in the same space — bringing about greater richness than if languages were kept apart.

Having formed a desire to have multiple languages exist in the same space we started looking at the spaces we currently use — most of which, whether they are physical or digital, are not made to be multilingual.

Slack as a work environment inhibits the emergence of a multilingual language culture within Takram. With very few features catering to multilingual communities, Slack naturally incentivises the siloing of people based on language. When reflecting on the challenges associated with languages in Slack, we regretfully looked back at situations where people who did not speak a particular language missed important meetings or information because some crucial message wasn’t translated.

With these situations in mind we decided to try and create an intervention to make Takram’s Slack workspace more welcoming to people — independent of what languages they speak.

It’s not just about automating translation

We knew that making a tool that promotes a multilingual culture within our organisation required much more than using an algorithm to translate messages.

What was needed could, in many ways, be gleaned from looking at our Slack workspace. It was heartwarming to observe how people were already helping each other out by translating messages as well as explaining the more fine-grained meaning of terms unique to a language. Looking at these existing interactions we felt that our intervention had to involve the community in the process of translation — perhaps we should make the act of translation a communal activity.

The first step towards achieving this was to make participation and engagement visible. We decided to make it clear to everyone when someone chose to translate something for themselves or others in the workspace. We did this by associating an emoji reaction with the act of translation. One can initiate translation by including the emoji in their message or by reacting with the emoji to the message another person sent. A Slack bot then responds by posting a translated version to the message’s thread. Others can later hover the emoji reaction to see who translated the message —a set of social dynamics, in which everyone can partake, has been created to support the act of translation.

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A translation of a Slack message can be added to a thread by adding a translate emoji reaction.

We tested the initial prototype in the Takram workspace. The testing not only provided us with a lot of rich insights, but proved its worth through daily use by many members of the community. It succeeded in nurturing a dynamic of members supporting each other by translating things they thought were important for others to know about.

We did have one reservation about this intervention — once a translation was done it did not invite further engagement and there were no tangible ways for members to contribute further by, for example, correcting mistranslations or validating the quality of translations.

Translation as a social engagement

Encouraged by the positive experience of inviting the community to help out with translation we decided to provide more ways for people to contribute by further embracing a design which invites participation.

Flow diagram mapping out the different actions different users might want to take
Flow diagram mapping out the different actions different users might want to take
Flow diagram mapping out the different actions different users might want to take.

In making participation a core principle of the Translator App we had to map out the different ways that people might want to engage with translation. When a translation occurs, a number of needs might arise for a person interfacing with the translation app. Someone who just translated something into a language they do not understand might feel a need to ask others to validate the quality of the translation. Someone with deep knowledge of multiple languages might feel an urge to edit messages which are mistranslated. And, of course, people who spot an incorrect translation would need a way to indicate to others that they are having trouble understanding the translation.

Following from this line of thinking it is possible to think of two distinct groups of users:

  • A group of people who only speak a subset of the languages which appear in a chat. On their own, this group of people cannot verify whether translations involving languages they can’t speak captures the intention and tone of the original message correctly. However, they are able to report when a translation into a language they understand does not make sense.
  • A group of people who have deep or sufficient knowledge of all the languages used in a context. This group is in a unique position as they are capable of verifying the quality of translations. They are also able to fix potential problems with translations and respond to challenges faces by people who don’t speak all of the used languages.

Having an understanding of the different groups of users, and noticing how people at times want to respond to translations, we started exploring if translations could, in some way, be made interactive.

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One exploration focusing on allowing people to explain special words or phrases. The exploration shows how the language of the text interface would vary based on the user’s preferred language.

After testing several modes of interaction, we decided to provide three ways of responding to a translated message:

  • Don’t understand — for people to indicate to others that they are having trouble understanding the translation.
  • Edit — For people who notice problems with the translation and fix them by editing the translation.
  • Validate — For people who are able to judge whether the translation properly captures the intent of the original message.
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An example of an interactive translation produced by the translator app we developed.

Testing this version in the workspace we felt that we were making progress in bringing people together to create bridges between languages. Many of the issues people found frustrating when we tested the initial prototype: an inability to edit mistranslations or not having a way of knowing whether the translation is valid, were addressed in a way which encourages interaction and sharing.

Being in conversation with each other, and the platforms we use

Having used this version of the translation app for a while, we are really happy with its influence on the studio culture. It stands as a good example of what can come of dedicating time towards remixing the platforms we use in ways that make them more aligned with the values of the community.

Of course, our translator app is, in many ways, a minor intervention touching on but a tiny part of one of the spaces we inhabit as a studio. However, it has shown us that a more welcoming and creative atmosphere can be nurtured by creating spaces which encourage the use of many languages.

Inspired by this project we feel an urge to try and explore further what futures might emerge if we continue leaning into and co-creating a conversational, multidirectional, and multilingual practice.

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