You may now know the history of the Esperanto Wikipedia, but did you know that the Czech Wikipedia was started through Esperanto? Back in November 2002, the Esperanto Wikipedia was already a year old and maturing, but the Czech Wikipedia didn’t even have its interface translated yet! Well, today I have a guest article which originally appeared in a Czech magazine about Wikipedia called Wikimedium about how the Czech Wikipedia got started and the important role which Esperanto played. The follow is an interview with Miroslav Malovec who translated the interface for the Czech Wikipedia back in 2002. You can also read the original article in Czech (PDF, p. 4-5) or its Esperanto translation at Libera Folio.
You founded the Czech Wikipedia in 2002. Then even the English Wikipedia had only been around for 20 months. How did you first come into contact with it?
I first heard about Wikipedia through Esperanto. Already in Spring 2000, I wrote in our association’s bulletin (Starto 2/2000, p. 3), that we need a general encyclopedia in Esperanto, because foreign languages serve people more as a source of information than as a way to get to know a random foreigner. When an magazine article appeared from our Rotterdam HQ (Esperanto 3/2002, p. 68) informing that the American student Chuck Smith founded the Esperanto version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (it was the first time that I heard about Wikipedia), I was filled with joy, that I found a kindred spirit and I immediately signed up for an account. I needed a bit of time to understand Chuck’s instructions of how the system worked, but after that I regularly contributed.
How do you remember your decision to found the Czech Wikipedia?
In November of the same year, we had a conference about technical applications of Esperanto in Dobřichovice near Prague. There I met Chuck Smith (then 23 years old), who came to lecture about Wikipedia. One week later, he was travelling to Budapest, and stopped by my home on the way and asked “Why don’t you start the Czech Wikipedia?” I answered, “Because I don’t know how to do that!” He then asked permission to connect my computer to the Internet, downloaded a TXT file and said, “Don’t touch what’s in English, those are commands for the machine. Translate everything in Esperanto to Czech, because those are instructions for humans.” The translation took around two weeks, and then I sent the result to Brion Vibber, who announced two days later that the Czech Wikipedia works already. We finished that at almost the end of 2002. But I found many typos and some commands which I incorrectly understood, so I asked about corrections. He gave me passwords, so I could correct everything myself. I fulfilled this task and forgot the passwords. Afterwards, new people started to sign up and I let them work and decided to dedicate myself to the Esperanto version. After a while, they reminded me that I’m still registered as an administator and I’m not fulfilling my duties, so I resigned from that position.
What did you expect founding the Czech Wikipedia? In what direction and to what extent did you suppose it would evolve?
In the Esperanto version, I hoped to create an information system which would make it possible for Esperanto to fulfill one of its main tasks of an international language, that is to deliver information about everything imaginable. At the same time, I wanted to present Czech culture to the world in much more detail than what can typically be found in paper encyclopedias. I also hoped that other Esperanto speakers would also present their national cultures. For example, the greatest painters of the world are already seen until we’re tired of them, but I’m also interested in painters from Denmark, Hungary, Finland, Iceland, etc., which are possibly less well-known, but there are certainly some very original artists among them (like our Lada or Zrzavý). Last, but not least, I wanted to record the history of Esperanto. Chuck asked me to copy the 2600 articles of the Enciklopedio de Esperanto from 1935, which describes our organizations, magazines, books and people of that time. Many articles were immediately updated and completed by other Wikipedians. And new articles kept appearing describing the last 75 years.
The Czech version Wikipedia was another situation. At first, I wanted to fulfill Chuck’s request and second, I didn’t want the Czech version to be missing among the other languages. And, of course, I liked the idea, that the Czech version has Esperanto to thank for being brought into existence. I planned to write about interlinguistic topics, but I’d leave everything else to other Czechs. I supposed, that online versions of our paper encyclopedias would form, but every article had to be rewritten from scratch because of copyrights. The main advantage is that updates appear in Wikipedia which can take several years to reach a printed encyclopedia and often they never reach it. Wikipedia reacts immediately, even hair-raisingly fast (for example, after the death of a celebrity), and one can describe things in a lot more detail, which the collective of authors of a classic encyclopedia would refuse to include due to lack of space. Or they write two sentences about someone, because the person didn’t seem that important to them, but you can put more details into Wikipedia. You can include young artists, athletes, scientists and politicians, which would appear in a paper encyclopedia only many years later. But often even older famous people are missing, which deserve to be included, but the encyclopedia’s authors don’t know about them. For example, the Vienna professor Eugen Wüster, founder of the technical standards and terminology, isn’t in any Czech encyclopedia. There are certainly thousands of other similar cases. I think that every person who works on a paper encyclopedia has written many notes in the margins, pasted in magazine clippings, etc. and Wikipedia allows us to propose such completions.
In the first weeks and months, indeed even years, the Czech Wikipedia was completely different than now. So that the readers can imagine that: what were some of the main differences?
In the beginning, copyrights were neglected. Some contributors wrote stories instead of encyclopedia articles, a certain form and structure still needed to crystalize. Also some unserious people “contributed” to vent their frustrations. For example, they wrote about one politician, that he was a cretin, nothing more. But the next day, someone else posted a serious detailed article, so thanks to that misstep, the politician (whose name I won’t confess) entered Wikipedia possibly as the first politician. Step by step, the need evolved, for every assertion to be documented, from where the writer pulled their information. A rule about neutrality was created: you couldn’t write that Jesus was the son of God, but rather had to formulate it like this: “Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God.” As for pictures, you had to prove, that it was not blocked by copyright or for some other reason. Professionals overwhelmed Wikipedia with criticism, that it wasn’t trustworthy nor serious, which caused much more severe rules to be established. – On the other hand, Wikipedia has information about current affairs and is very valuable, because it turns its readers into authors and active contributors. That means that people learn to work together with people they don’t know, and have to study a topic in more detail before writing about it, which enriches them much more than a passive reading of an article, even an article which was written by a professional.
You’ve done much more work for the Esperanto Wikipedia, where you still contribute to this day. Does it appeal to you more?
We have many Czech encyclopedias, and Wikipedia is just a further step in their evolution and of course, there are plenty of other Czechs, which contribute to the project. If every Esperanto speaker would run away to their native language version, the Esperanto version would become a ghost town. That’s why we leave the national language Wikipedias to our compatriots and we dedicate our energy to the Esperanto version as a common international creation, moreover the first of its kind in the history of Esperanto. I’ll sporadically contribute to the Czech Wikipedia about topics relating to Esperanto, but for example about Czech artists and other items of the past, I’d rather write in the Esperanto version and in this way promote Czech culture abroad. In addition, we don’t want to forget about people who worked for Esperanto before us, that’s why we also write about the history of our movement which I already mentioned. But Wikipedia is only one of my activities. I also contribute to the Encyclopedia of Brno and to the Authorities of the National Library, if I find errors or anything which is missing. For the biological library BioLib, I added 11,000 Esperanto names of animals and plants, and contributed some digital books to the Project Gutenberg. I’m also working on a manuscript of Esperanto speakers who have passed away and I edit the association’s bulletin. I’ve also translated some texts to Esperanto for the Esperanto Museum in Svitavy, so I guess you could say that I hop from one thing to another, whenever the need rises to work on that.
How would you rate the current state of the Czech Wikipedia? Do you use it yourself as a reader?
Of course, when I need encyclopedic information, I check out different languages in Wikipedia, because each one has something which is missing from the others. Often it helps me with terminology, when I need to know how different languages name a certain object. In every version, I meet model articles and also those where there is just a minimum of information. Finally, it’s possible to print Wikipedia as a book. I just saw the German version in book form! I think that the Czech version isn’t mature enough to print, but there is not much missing.
And what about the other Wikimedia projects, in Czech or in Esperanto? Are you intimately connected to them as an author or a user?
I don’t occupy myself with the other projects. I’ve only worked a little bit on the Esperanto Wikibooks, but that was already some years ago.
When someone visits your personal website, he won’t even know that you founded the Czech Wikipedia. Are you not proud of that?
I don’t want to appear as a braggart, that’s why I prefer that people say that Esperanto speakers founded the Czech Wikipedia and not me personally. By the way, Chuck Smith and Brion Vibber effectively created it, I was just the first person they requested to translate Wikipedia commands to Czech. That wasn’t such a large task. Maybe in that sense, I’ll rewrite my website.
The founder of the English Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, is now one of the largest figures online with not a small influence. That can’t be said about you. Does that not bother you?
No, my translation of a short text is not comparable with the creation of an idea, of the respective program, putting it online, and spreading it all. Jimmy Wales deserves his influence, if he effectively has it. In recent months, he was exposed in Wikipedia as a beggar, shaking his wallet. I don’t know if that’s the right glory and right influence.
Looking back on this ten-year anniversary, what do you want for Wikipedia, not just for Czech, but also the worldwide project, for its next ten years?
I believe that encyclopedias, dictionaries and similar things of educational character stay online “forever” and every new generation perfects and works through them. It would make no sense to wipe out work that’s already done and write everything over again from scratch. I hope that professionals stop criticizing Wikipedia because of its mistakes and start contributing to the common work to correct its errors. There are also quite a few errors swarming around classic encyclopedias, because no one person can know everything, a professional as well as an amateur copies from earlier encyclopedias, including their errors. But errors cannot be so easily corrected anywhere else like in Wikipedia’s open system. When I find an error in a paper encyclopedia, you’ll correct it with a pen in your copy, but the authors won’t know about that, and will repeat the same error in the next edition. In Wikipedia, you’ll write a comment, why you think the text has an error, and after some discussion the error will be corrected and there will appear a notice that there exists two sources with different information. In that way, Wikipedia can approach the trustworthiness of professional encyclopedias and at the same time keep its grassroots character. Thanks to the fact, that every Internet user can contribute, Wikipedia collects a great mass of information which can’t be found elsewhere, and that’s why Wikipedia is unique among other encyclopedias. It becomes a collective work of all mankind and I suppose that that won’t change until the end of human civilization. In the next decade, new languages will probably appear, for example African and Indian, which will bring in riches about culture and reality, which are now only mentioned marginally – and not only in Wikipedia. I hope that the current decade will become the decade of virtual libraries, which are now looking for their optimal form (Gutenberg, Europeana, among others) but sometime they will become a virtual variant of national and scientific libraries, where you can find fiction, technical literature, tourism information, photos, sound recordings, videos, films, and of course, also encyclopedias. So, I wish for Wikipedia, that it keep its extraordinary position in that virtual world.
In Brno (in the Czech original: Jan 6, 2011) by Miroslav Malovec
(Esperanto translation: Jan 22, 2011) by Miroslav Malovec
(English translation: Jan 25, 2011) by Chuck Smith
This article is under the Creative Commons BY-SA license by Wikimedia Czech Republic.