Milestone In Oromo History As Largest Afaan Oromo To English Translation Machine Is Launched
(Horn 24 News) — All systems go on as the the Oromo Nation marks a milestone in its history with the launching of the English to Afaan Oromo Machine Translation .
Despite the numerous challenges faced by a group of volunteers who initiated the ambitious project that is part of “the Grand Oromo Project”. Launching of the phase 1 of the largest Afaan Oromo-English Online Machine Translation this week was reason enough to celebrate this milestone in the conservation of one of Africa’s most widely spoken languages.
Afaan Oromo is a Lingua Franca spoken in Ethiopia and across the border in several Horn of Africa countries with an estimated 55 million speakers and putting it into modern technology was a major accomplishment by the team.
Computer Scientist Dr. Debela Tesfaye who is based in University of Dundee Scotland, UK handles the technicalities of the project. He is the brains behind the translation machine.
Speaking to Horn24 Media Dr. Tesfaye explained how the translation machine operates.
“It is the first publicly available translation machine learning system which translates English sentences to Afaan Oromo and vice versa. We have translated about 200,000 English sentences to Afaan Oromo sentences and this includes several dialects” Dr. Tesfaye explained.
“The current model of translation is basically in short sentences. The next phase will be based on complex sentences. We are also in the process of coming up with a model in which you can translate Afaan Oromo sentences into English” Dr. Tesfaye told Horn24 Media.
For Portland based Petros Waritu the achievement has been a labor of love having had to work with limited resources and little funding. ” But we remained optimistic that with good effective networking and professional linguists and all spectrum of individuals capable of translating this language we will accomplish our mission and may be in the future the government or other interested parties may see the good out of this and support the project” said the Oromo philanthropist.
“Indeed dedication and hard-work can make a difference. Five volunteers with limited funds managed to execute a historic project on behalf of fifty million people” Tampa, Florida based Lalisaa Hiikaa the head of the project told Horn24.
The learning model used is referred to us as the transformer model as explained by Dr Tesfaye. It is the latest learning model in the market similar to what Google Translate deploys.
“We are in the process of coming up with a model which will take Afaan Oromo text and give you an equivalent English translation in audio form” Dr Tesfaye told Horn24 media.
“One of the hot button issues for Oromo people was making Afaan Oromoo a federal working language. We managed to do it with funding from five individuals and active participation from 72 professionals. We are excited. We have made history and we are motivated to do even more in the reamaining phase” Mr Lalisaa added.
According to Lalisaa phase one of the project entailed data collection which cost in the neighborhood of $28,000 an amount they managed to raise but because of lack of funds they are unable to move to the next phase. The said amount does not include development of software, deploying and training machine.
While acknowledging the remarkable success Petros is unhappy over the apparent lip service given by the Oromo diaspora over this important project.
“We have been marginalized for more than one hundred and fifty years and more so in the last twenty seven years as a result we the Oromos are consumed by politics and forgetting about their language which is part of the identity. People should work together for a common good irrespective of our political opinion. This lacks among my people” Retros lamented.
Petros adds that the ground work should begin to make Afaan Oromo a federal working language. “We should not expect the government to do everything . We also have a responsibility to do the ground work but I don’t see that willingness yet and we should all be on the same page for the common good” Retros told Horn24.
” I hope in the future more people will be involved we have just paved way for the next generation who will pick up from where we left and do a better job than this” Petros added.
The brains behind this project are Lalisaa Hiikaa the project head, Edinburgh UK Computer Scientist Dr Debela Tesfaye , Petros Waritu, Gelane Firisa and Arif Bakar all based in the US.
Back in Ethiopia Dagaagaa Hiikaa was the (co-ordinator) while Gemechu Birhanu (developer) backed up the diaspora proponents in funding and developing the project.
72 linguists, professors, teachers , students and other professionals were involved in this historic project.
“You can’t imagine this, this is a huge project and requires thousands of dollars close to forty-fifty thousand dollars and then we had to find a way to come up with this amount of money and we did. From early 2018-2020 we were regrouping and soliciting funds from Oromo people and government agencies with little luck and no one or no prominent Oromo business men were interested in funding the project. Other organizations were also not as helpful.” Mr Lalisaa told the media.
The initial phase of translation cost approximately $ 28,000. It consists of short and long simple sentences mainly used in day to day activities or conversations.
“We lacked enough funds to continue with the second phase . It consists of scientific, political, legal. Social, biological, historical words. This phase will be more expensive and time consuming than the first one. But we planned to slowly start working on the project while soliciting funds” Mr Lalilsaa said.
This will not be the first educational project that the five have been involved in Oromia. In 2019 in partnership with Oromia Development Association (ODA) and Oromia Bureau of Education they launched the e-library project in Oromia regional state, Ethiopia.
“Oromia Development Association and Oromia Bureau of Education were eager to fund the project and even in the future they will partner with us to continue doing what we started back in 2019 with digital library and e-learning. We will develop an application for this Al machine to be installed on those servers in coordination with ODA and Oromia Bureau of Education” Mr Lalisaa added.
Minnesota based Oromo philanthropist Ms Gelane Firisa’s excitement is palpable she had never envisioned completing this first phase.
“Language is the basis of a community. Even though we are striving to do more our population is big and so is our language usage. Our language had not been translated to English all these years which is sad. Am so excited that it happened finally” Ms Gelane told the Horn24 News media.
Gelane laments on the frequent requests to government agencies, business people for collaboration with little response.
“When we visited Oromia region in 2019 I was disappointed how the education levels had gone down. Basic education is none existent in many parts of the region . I personally wanted to focus on how to promote on how our kids can get education how we can have volunteers in our school system especially from the diaspora. I just want to invest in our kids. That`s where my heart is” Ms Gelane said
“The target of this project is to develop Afaan Oromoo and making it available for online translation from Afaan Oromoo to English or English to Afaan Oromo to other languages and vice versa. The other main target of the project is developing an application and installing it on the servers installed in several high schools across Oromia. Our team fundraised and installed digital library and e-learning platform in 14 high schools in Oromia and this time we want to develop an application to be installed on those servers for students to use the language translator and learn from it. We plan to install the e-learning digital library platform in all Oromia high schools and most elementary schools by 2021 if the government of Ethiopia cooperates or allows this team to do so” Mr Lalisaa said.
The project is the largest Afaan Oromo English translation available online integrating 8 dialects of the language. Oromo is the largest ethnic group in Eastern Africa with an estimated 50,000,000 people. It became an official language after the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1990s. It became the official language of the Oromia regional state but the development of the language lagged behind significantly.
For Kenyan journalist and filmmaker Yassin Juma this is one of his happiest accomplishment in strengthening the strong long and history of Africa that has been left out of the mainstream media,
“I am proud to have been one of the first people to be consulted when the idea of an Al Afaan Oromo machine was conceived. I had previously worked with the team in the successful e-learning project installing digital libraries in Oromo high schools. I saw how important the project was in boosting the academic standards which honestly I found to be very wanting in comparison to Kenya. Their zeal to improve education in the region attracted me to the two projects. There is so much focus on politics at this point in the history of Ethiopia but this project will benefit many generations of Oromo to come. We need more people on board it is not a five person project but a fifty five million plus people project” Yassin Juma said.
“Afaan Oromo is an important language even beyond Ethiopia.There is a large Afaan Oromo speaking population in Kenya’s Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo, Mandera and Tana River counties. That is a huge chunk of Kenya. Am talking over a million speakers in Kenya alone including the Garree and Ajuraan Somali clans who adopted the language. You see how important the project is beyond the Ethiopian borders?” Juma told Horn24.
“You can imagine before this launch there was no translated data, no resource for research and development of the language. That is the main reason why we took it upon ourselves to translate Afaan Oromo” Lalisaa concluded.
To access the translation site visit