Language Vision: Sight-impaired developer determined to ‘Armenianize’ Internet

If present plans continue, in the coming months Internet users will be able to have on-line translation of English-Armenian and Armenian-English free of charge thanks to an Armenian technologist for whom words are life.

Twelve years ago, Eduard Manukyan became almost blind, a result of a trauma he suffered in childhood.

Six years ago, Manukyan, professor of the Computing Systems and Information Department of the State Engineering University of Armenia (SEUA) and the head of the Automated Translations Laboratory, launched the translation software project.

“When I shared my idea with my family they didn’t take it seriously. They said I should better go earn money. But I believed in the work I had begun, and I didn’t care what people around me said,” he says.

Manukyan has paved the way for creating such a software as early as in 1970s forming a research crew form the 50-60 bachelor and PhD students of the SEUA. He was sure at least one of his inventions will be realized one day.

“While in the 80s the spread of the Russian was taking place at the expense of the Armenian lanugage, today it is English that spreads and forces out Armenian,” says Manukyan. “Everything – Internet, modern literature, even the way of thinking with many – is in English. Consequently we had the necessity to create a translator software that would help us save our language.”

Manukyan is almost totally deprived of the ability to see. Eye doctors conclude that his condition is the result of a childhood trauma, but he is convinced the intense work contributed to losing his sight. For the past 10 years his work is made possible by students whom he calls his “guardian angels”.

About 15 students volunteer to help Manukyan, including those from Yerevan State, the Pedagogical Universities and the Brusov Linguistic University.

“Although I don’t see well enough to work on a computer on my own, my children sit by my side and I tell them what to do. You may now think how do I manage? I do everything in my imagination designing in my mind, developing concepts, calculating, etc.,” explains Manukyan.

Part of the students work on the technical side of the software, the rest – on the linguistic-translation part. The meanings of the words expressed through concepts create a logical chain and transfer a given text into the one in usable English or Armenian.

“We get paid when there is funding, but frankly speaking it does not matter much for me at the moment. I am confident the work we do will be useful,” says Narine Khachatryan, a YSU student who contributes to the work of the group as a linguist.

From the very start of the work the author of the software has been trying to find funding. The SEUA has agreed to a set sum for three as staff of the institution, their monthly pay making $15. Naturally, it has been a bit unbelievable to make up such a software for $45 per month. Manukyan was forced to use his own means that resulted in the bankruptcy of one of his private enterprises.

Getting funding of $70,000 USD in 2003 within the frameworks of the competition jointly organized by the Open Society Institute and the Eurasia Foundation the group managed at last to equip the laboratory with the minimum necessities. Owing to the funding the volunteers got their first wages.

In 2005 the activities of the research staff was encouraged also by the government of Armenia by allocation of 1,400000 drams (about $3,150).

Translation for some 10,000 words is ready. But Manukyan and his team aim to have five times that amount.

Though it has cost him personal investment, Manukyan is determined to make the software available to users at no cost.

However the biggest concern for Manukyan, age 60, is different:

“I am afraid I will die one day and the flame in the trained group will die away with me. Automated translations center should be created on a state level that will have permanent funding and will develop the software independent of individuals. After all, we plan to create also translators of Western Armenian as well as other foreign languages,” says Manukyan.

Chairman of the Internet Union of Armenia Igor Mkrtumyan believes national software should be created for which a clear budget should be set by the state.

“Many have had the idea of developing such software but no one has dared to begin the work. Today we have a ready one and its development will result in the ‘Armenianization’ of the internet making it available even to the residents of further regions independent of the knowledge of the language,” says Mkrtumyan.