Linux for Translators Myths and FAQs

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Technology  »  Hardware and Operating Systems  »  Linux for Translators Myths and FAQs

Linux for Translators Myths and FAQs

By xxxMarc P | Published  08/30/2003 | Hardware and Operating Systems | Recommendation:
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xxxMarc P
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German to English translator
 
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Linux for Translators Myths and FAQs

What exactly is Linux? What is "GNU/Linux"?

What is "open source"?

I've heard that Linux is difficult to use. Is that true?

Linux is great because it runs on very old hardware!

Linux is great because it never crashes!

Linux is great because it's free!

I thought Linux was free. Why does it cost $30, $50, $90...?

What exactly is a "distribution"? Which is the best one?

Linux is great because it is virus-proof!

Do I have to learn how to compile software in order to use Linux?

I don't want to work from the command line!

Will I have to learn a whole new set of commands if I use Linux?

Do I have to type my translations in a primitive text editor?

I've heard Linux users prefer to use TeX - what's that?

So which is the best word processor for Linux?

What's the difference between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?

Exactly how good is the compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Word? I need it to be perfect!

Is there a Linux version of Microsoft Office? I really can't do without it!

What about translation memory?

I hate Bill Gates! Windows is a rip-off! How can I start using Linux right away?

What's an emulator? Can I use one to run my Windows applications on Linux?

What is "WINE"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

What is "Lindows"/"Linspire"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

What is "Crossover Office"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

Aren't the reasons for using Linux more to do with politics than anything else? If Linux is free, can it really be good? Is Linux an anti-capitalist conspiracy?

As a translator, what reasons might I have for not using Linux?

As a translator, what reasons might I have for using Linux?


What exactly is Linux? What is "GNU/Linux"?

The term "Linux" itself is a cause of confusion, as it is often used for several quite different concepts. These concepts are:
- The Linux kernel. This is the heart or "bare bones" of the Linux operating system. You may have heard of Linus Torvalds, who gave his name to Linux: this is the piece that he and his friends wrote.
- An operating system, comprising the Linux kernel and other software, for example a user interface, file management utilities, etc. Such a system can take several different forms depending upon its intended purpose, but it could well resemble the desktop "Windows" operating system you are familiar with. The software which complements the Linux kernel in this case is generally that produced by the GNU project, and the correct name for such an operating system is "GNU/Linux". (GNU stands for "GNU's Not UNIX".) However, when they mean "GNU/Linux", most people just say "Linux". Except where I say otherwise, I've followed the usual, i.e. incorrect usage in this document.
- A complete system comprising the Linux kernel, the remaining GNU software, and applications (such as word processing software).
- A Linux distribution.
- Open-source software in general.

What is "open source"?

A program is in fact a long list of commands which are carried out by the computer. In order to make the task of writing these commands easier, the program is written in a programming language which is easier for a human programmer to understand. A program in this form is referred to as "source code".

Once the programmer has written the source code, it is converted into a form which the computer can understand, "machine code", also referred to as "the binaries". The process of conversion is called "compiling".

Machine code is virtually impossible for human programmers to understand. In order to make changes to a program, they must change the source code written by the original programmer, and then recompile it to produce new machine code. Companies selling or distributing commercial software do not usually want users to be able to make changes to it, so they do not normally provide the source code along with the program. Consequently, users are not normally able to modify the program in any way. If the author, seller or distributor of a program also provides the source code of the program, the software is described as "open source". The source code is accompanied by a licence describing what the user is allowed to do with the code. A program supplied without the source code is called "closed-source".

Note that not all open-source software is for Linux. The ForeignDesk translation memory program, for example, is open-source but only runs on Windows. Equally, not all software for the Linux platform is open-source. Software for Linux also includes commercial software (such as Crossover Office, which currently costs around $60 and enables you to run Microsoft Office, if you have it), free closed-source software (such as Java), and commercial software with free demonstration versions (such as the Heartsome CAT-tool suite).

I've heard that Linux is difficult to use. Is that true?

No. Linux is not difficult to use. Most of the time, you won't even be aware that you're using Linux, because most of your work will be done in applications with user-friendly user interfaces. For example, you might use OpenOffice.org as your word processor. OpenOffice.org is so similar to Microsoft Word that you may well forget that you're not actually using Word. You are likely to surf the Internet using Firefox or Opera, either of which is as easy to use as Microsoft Explorer (which you won't be using!). You'll use Ark, which looks much the same as WinZip, to zip and unzip files. Adobe has a version of Acrobat Reader for Linux which is much the same as the Windows version. And so on and so forth.

The difficulties with Linux arise when you:
- install it;
- configure it;
- add new hardware, such as a modem or printer;
- install new software.

However, if you are careful in your preparation and you are prepared to experiment a little, you can make installing and configuring Linux as easy as installing and configuring Windows. Well, almost.

Linux is great because it runs on very old hardware!

This is only partly true; the reason is confusion about what exactly Linux is. The Linux kernel is extremely compact, efficient and flexible, and it can be installed on an enormous range of hardware and adapted to a wide range of tasks. It may be possible to intstall it on a PC which is several years old. The problem is that on its own, the kernel is of little use. Enterprising individuals have installed the Linux kernel and certain other carefully selected software on old Intel 386 PCs in order for example to use them as firewalls or routers - a task for which one would normally buy a dedicated piece of hardware. This is one way of "breathing new life" into obsolete hardware instead of throwing it away, but it is of little interest to translators.

The flexibility of the Linux kernel and associated software also means that it is possible to install a working operating system and the software needed by a translator, such as a word processor and an Internet browser, on an old PC. There are however two problems with this. The first is that the older the hardware, the more carefully the various pieces of software will have to be selected to run on it, and the greater the effort involved in "tweaking" them to get them to run together. The second is that even if you manage to get such a solution to work, there will be a trade-off between user-friendliness and speed. Linux may well enable you to get one or the other on older hardware, but not both at the same time.

Linux is great because it never crashes!

Again, this is only partly true, and again, the reason is the same: the Linux "kernel" is extremely stable - but you will need more than just the kernel.

A Linux system can be thought of as a number of layers. From the bottom up, these layers are:
- The Linux kernel.
- Other GNU utilities making up the foundation of the operating system; these are generally variants of code that has been developed over many years in the UNIX environment, and are also very reliable.
- The window system. This is normally the X Window System, and is what enables Linux to have a graphical user interface (GUI).
- The desktops, the most common of which are KDE and GNOME. These are what give Linux its "look and feel" on the desktop.
- The applications. These may be native Linux applications (i.e. applications written specifically for Linux, or at least for its close relative, UNIX), applications ported (i.e. re-written) from Windows applications, or applications running on a further layer of software (such as Java).

The last three (or if you prefer, the top three) of these layers, whilst not necessarily being particularly unstable, do not generally share the legendary stability of the Linux kernel. In practice, this means that:
- crashes on Linux are likely to happen extremely rarely, if at all, though they should not be ruled out completely;
- should an application crash, Linux' multitasking capability is likely to mean that only the one application crashes, and other applications open at the same are not affected;
- at the very worst, only the X Window System is likely to crash; the user may have to log in again and relaunch the applications, but it is extremely unlikely for the whole system to have to be rebooted;
- it is extremely rare for a Linux system to become corrupted and have to be re-installed from scratch.

Linux is great because it's free!

Linux is free. But ask someone why they use Linux, and they're unlikely to give that as a reason (though "value for money" might well feature in the answer). Linux is not really about "free", but about "freedom" - freedom to use software, to copy it, pass it on to friends and colleagues, and even to modify it. Freedom to use older versions if you like, for example because they work better with your older hardware; freedom from having to upgrade for the sake of it. Freedom to select what suits you from a number of options.

I thought Linux was free. Why does it cost $30, $50, $90...?

Linux is free. Most of the associated open-source software is also free. This means that licences are free: you can install one copy of the software on several PCs, lend the CD to your friends in order for them to do the same, burn copies of the CD, etc.

The makers of a distribution, however, charge for the actual media upon which the software is supplied. If a manual and/or technical support is provided, they will also charge for these. The licences for complete distributions differ slightly, but most are fairly liberal: so liberal, in fact, that some companies make a profit purely by burning cheap copies of well-known distributions and selling them at a fraction of the price. This is (in most cases) perfectly legal.

Distributions can generally be downloaded free of charge from the distributor's web site.

What exactly is a "distribution"? Which is the best one?

A distribution is a package of software comprising
- the Linux kernel itself;
- other software which together with the kernel forms an operating system (similar in function to Windows);
- a collection of applications;
- a number of installation utilities which enable the user to install all of the above.
The packages are put together and distributed in some cases by commercial companies, in others by volunteers or even by governments.

Which distribution is best is not an easy question to answer, firstly because people's needs differ, and secondly because Linux is developing at a phenomenal pace and any information on particular distributions will quickly be out of date.

At the time of writing, there are well over a hundred different Linux distributions to choose from. For a comprehensive list with descriptions, visit Distrowatch or Linux.org. Factors to consider in your choice include:

- Support for hardware. Some distributions are better for new hardware, some provide better support for older hardware; if your hardware is very old, one of the best solutions may in fact be to use an older version of an existing distribution. There is, however, a certain element of "luck" with hardware support, and it is quite possible that one distribution will automatically recognize your printer but not your modem, another your modem but not your printer, leaving you to do some manual configuration with either. If you are trying to install Linux on an existing PC, you might therefore consider taking the path of least resistance and "letting your hardware choose", i.e. select the distribution which requires the least additional configuration.

- Language support. This is likely to be a major consideration for some translators. At one time, Linux - like Windows - was somewhat Latin-centric. Since then, support for non-European alphabets in most of the major distributions has improved considerably. At the same time, distributions are appearing which are geared to certain world regions. If you wish to work with Chinese, for instance, you are likely to be better served by a Chinese distribution such as Red Flag Linux than by kmLinux, which was designed for the German education system.

- Ease of installation. Some distributions are designed with ease of installation in mind. "Ease of installation" needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, as it is generally involves an attempt to automate as much of the installation process as possible, for example by relieving the user of the tedium of manually selecting hardware components and desired software applications. If you are lucky, and both your hardware configuration and your program requirements are very standard, a "user-friendly" distribution might live up to its name; when manual configuration does become necessary, however, a distribution that is truly user-friendly will become evident by the ease of use of its configuration tools.

- Availability of support. This takes two forms. Firstly, some distributions include hotline support (at a price). If you value a friendly voice on the end of the line when all else fails (or long before), consider it when you go shopping for a distribution. Secondly, safety in numbers! If you choose one of the more common distributions such as Red Hat, Mandrake or SuSE, you are more likely to find a helping hand in an Internet forum to guide you through some tricky configuration problem than if you opt for a very obscure distribution which hardly anyone else uses.

- Special needs. This covers all manner of particular requirements which, by definition, aren't "general" and which I therefore can't attempt to cover here. If you are disabled, for example, there are distributions for you. There are distributions which run from a CD and require no installation - a very good way of getting an initial "feel" for Linux without the work or risk of installing Linux on an existing PC. If you're looking for something special in the way of a distribution, look, or ask around, and you may well find it.

- Applications. The applications a translator is likely to need are covered in more detailed below. Remember, though, that a typical Linux distribution includes not only the operating system, but a huge number of applications as well. Some distributions are so comprehensive that very little additional software need be installed before you sit down and start translating. Even though the "additional" software is largely free and readily available, obtaining and installing it still costs time and energy, so there is a clear advantage in obtaining a distribution which includes most, if not all the applications you need. Some, but by no means all "comprehensive" distributions (from a translator's point of view) are advertised as "desktop" distributions, as they tend to concentrate on desktop applications to the detriment of Internet server, router, firewall applications etc. which are of much lesser interest to translators.

Linux is great because it is virus-proof!

This is not strictly speaking true; viruses for Linux do in fact exist. Generally speaking, though, the chances of a Linux user falling victim to a virus are extremely slim. There are a number of reasons for this.
- Writers of viruses naturally target the largest group of victims. As Linux still accounts for only a tiny fraction of desktop users, writers of viruses have evidently not considered them worth targeting.
- Windows software, both the operating system and certain applications, are extremely poorly protected against virus attack. In particular, the combination of very poor (if not downright reckless) default settings and a high level of user ignorance has contributed to making many users very vulnerable to attack. Both of these factors are rare in the Linux world: as well as being very secure against attack, Linux applications generally have very defensive default settings, and their users have an above-average awareness of how the software is supposed to be used.
- A Linux system, even on a humble PC, normally features several "user" accounts and an "administrator" account, known as "root". A user account is used for normal work; the root account, which is the only account to have access to the whole system, is normally used only for administration. This is often cited as a major security advantage for Linux, as damage caused by an attack is normally limited to just one user account. If you are the only person using your Linux system, though, it is little consolation if you only lose "your" data!
- Open-source software itself is also claimed to benefit security, as the fact that technically skilled users are able to look closely at the inner workings of a program means that there are always many pairs of eyes looking for security weaknesses. In practice, whilst there is no doubt some justification for this view, the willingness of many open-source users to try out obscure applications could equally further the spread of viruses should their numbers grow, their average technical awareness fall, and virus writers begin to take an interest in them. At present, though we are a long way from reaching that stage.

Do I have to learn how to compile software in order to use Linux?

No. Although some diehard Linux users insist on compiling all software themselves before installing it, this is hardly ever necessary: most software is supplied ready-compiled.

I don't want to work from the command line!

You don't have to. Linux has a graphical user interface. In fact, it has a number of different graphical interfaces, and you can choose whichever suits you most.

Will I have to learn a whole new set of commands if I use Linux?

No. You won't have to work from the command line if you don't want to (although the option of doing so is often a great advantage). System administration, file management and productivity applications are available which make use of the familiar style of GUIs, use of the mouse, menus, drag and drop, and keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-X, etc. From the user's perspective, Linux has a few basic features which differ from Windows, but these are not necessarily any more complicated than the corresponding Windows features - just different. The fact that folder (directory) names are preceded by a forward slash rather than a backslash, for example, is something which will be familiar to you from the Internet. Linux also lacks drive designations, such as a:\ for the floppy drive, c:\ for the hard drive, etc., but such differences are soon learnt.

Do I have to type my translations in a primitive text editor?

No, you don't have to, though some Linux users seem to have a masochistic inclination to do so. There are several fully-featured word processors available for Linux.

I've heard Linux users prefer to use TeX - what's that?

TeX is frequently referred to as a "text processor". It is also described by the acronym "WYSIWYW" (What You See Is What You Want) rather than the common "WYSIWYG" (What You See Is What You Get). The essential difference between "text processing" and "word processing" is that with "text processing", the user defines much more exactly how the final text is going to look when printed out, although it will not necessarily look that way on the screen. It is also much harder to work with than with the familiar word processors such as MS Word. This method of working has its adherents, but you don't have to be one of them - there is nothing to stop you using one of the many word processors for Linux.

So which is the best word processor for Linux?

That depends very much upon your criteria for selection. Assuming that you are receiving texts from a customer, though, and your job is to overwrite the text in a different language, the most important criterion is likely to be how well the existing formatting is preserved. In practice, this usually means: how good is the compatibility with Microsoft Office, in particular with Microsoft Word? At the time of writing, one particular word processor office suite/word processor is streets ahead of all the others in terms of this compatibility, and that is OpenOffice.org/StarOffice.

What's the difference between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?

Simple. OpenOffice.org is free. You can download it from the Internet and install it on as many computers as you like. StarOffice is a commercial product: you buy a copy and with it the licence to use it on one PC. The copy you buy comes with a manual and with access to the StarOffice help line. There are minor differences in the actual software: StarOffice includes extra goodies such as clipart graphics, for example. To all intents and purposes, though, the applications are the same.

Exactly how good is the compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Word? I need it to be perfect!

The compatibility isn't perfect, and never will be as long as Microsoft insists on using closed, proprietary file formats, although the prospects of perfect compatibility have increased substantially since Microsoft announced its XML formats. What's more, in order to get the best possible compatibility, other applications would have to be as similar as possible to MS Word, whereas their vendors would rightly point out that they aim to be better than MS Word.

Having said that, OpenOffice.org's import and export filters for MS Word are extremely good. In particular, when an MS Word document is edited in OpenOffice.org (as opposed to a new document being created in OpenOffice.org, possibly with complex formatting, and then exported), the changes to the formatting are extremely small. It is worth noting that conversion between Word and RTF, which is needed by many translation memory applications, is not perfect either, and in fact even conversion between different versions of MS Word may result in formatting loss.

Is there a Linux version of Microsoft Office? I really can't do without it!

No, there's no Linux version of Microsoft Office - and don't expect one to appear in the foreseeable future. There is, however, a piece of software called Crossover Office which enables you to run Microsoft Office (versions 97, 2000 and XP) on Linux.

What about translation memory?

At the time of writing, there are no translation memory applications written specifically for Linux. You can, however, use a cross-platform translation memory application. These include programs written in Java, such as OmegaT. If you choose to use Crossover Office in order to run Microsoft Word or Office on Linux, you can also use one of the translation memory applications which take the form of a Word template. The most popular application in this category is Wordfast.

I hate Bill Gates! Windows is a rip-off! How can I start using Linux right away?

Whether these are good enough reasons for abandoning Windows in favour of Linux, only you can decide. Even if you are absolutely determined to use Linux, though, don't expect to be able to do so overnight. You will have to:
- find suitable hardware for your Linux system;
- install and configure the Linux operating system, unless you buy a PC with Linux pre-installed;
- find alternative applications or solutions for the ones you previously used on Windows;
- become familiar with the particular characteristics and a range of new applications;
- perhaps convert legacy data into a different format.

This can generally all be accomplished (assuming you are not particularly attached to a certain Windows application), but it does take time. It is therefore better to use Windows and Linux side-by-side for a while.

What's an emulator? Can I use one to run my Windows applications on Linux?

An emulator is a piece of software that pretends to be a piece of hardware. Emulators such as VMWare and Win4Lin can be installed on Linux. You then install a copy of Windows, and finally your Windows software. In other words, you don't use an emulator on Linux instead of Windows; you use it in order to use Linux and Windows on the same machine, and you still need the Windows operating system and a licence for it. Some translators who prefer to use Linux but who insist on using one or two Windows applications - Déjà Vu is one of the favourites - use this solution.

What is "WINE"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

WINE stands for "Wine Is Not an Emulator". Why is WINE not an emulator? Because an emulator emulates (pretends to be) a piece of hardware. WINE pretends to be a piece of software - Windows. That means you can install Windows applications and run them without having a copy of Windows and the associated licence. That's the theory. In practice, there are three problems: most Windows applications of interest to translators won't work on WINE; those that do require a lot of "tweaking" of WINE; even when they run, most don't run very well.

What is "Lindows"/"Linspire"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

Lindows, which has been named "Linspire" following a copyright battle between its owner and Microsoft, is a Linux distribution which was designed with two things in mind: first, to make Linux simpler to install and use, and second, to enable users to install Windows applications. Linspire has succeeded in reaching its first goal, and there are many happy Linspire users out there, although some of the benefits of Linux have been lost. Linspire has been less successful in making Windows software run on Linux, though. In practice, Linspire relies on WINE and is not much better for running Windows applications than other Linux distributions.

What is "Crossover Office"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?

Crossover Office is a version of WINE specially configured in order to make it possible to install Microsoft Office (97, 2000 XP and 2003). Unlike WINE, it actually works very well without extra configuration, provided the only Windows software you wish to run is Microsoft Office. In theory, you can try installing other Windows software on Crossover Office. In some cases you will be lucky, but in most cases the applications won't work. Codeweavers, the distributor of Crossover Office, is gradually increasing the number of Windows applications which it supports. WINE is open-source and free, whereas Crossover Office is a commercial product, albeit not an expensive one at around $40.

Aren't the reasons for using Linux more to do with politics than anything else? If Linux is free, can it really be good? Is Linux an anti-capitalist conspiracy?

The best way to answer these questions is to consider the Internet. If you're a translator, you almost certainly use the Internet to find information, and most of that information is free. Some of it is very good. Some of it is not. But have you considered not using it just because it's free? Incidentally, it is quite likely that your favourite online forum is running on Linux!

As a translator, what reasons might I have for not using Linux?

Several. The main ones are:
- At present, Linux gives you a limited choice of translation memory software. If you use a TM package that is only available for Windows and you wouldn't want to be without it, then stay with Windows.
- Many dictionaries available on CD will not run on Linux. If you particularly like using dictionaries on CD, Linux is not yet ready for you (or vice-versa).
- Virtually none of the main DTP packages, such as Pagemaker or Quark XPress, are available for Linux. If, by choice or out of necessity, you use one or more of these packages to edit customers' files in these formats, you will have to use Windows (or a Mac), at least for the time being.
- If your first concern is simply to save money, Linux is unlikely to be the best solution. It is cheaper simply to get the most out of your existing Windows system. Don't upgrade Windows until you have to. Instead of upgrading to a newer version of MS Word or Office, get a copy of Textmaker (cheap) or OpenOffice.org (free), both of which are very serious alternatives to the Microsoft product, and are available for Windows as well as Linux. Try one of the inexpensive or free translation memory programs such as Wordfast or OmegaT before splashing out on an expensive system such as Trados. Use one of the free alternatives to WinZip. Note: I am not saying that saving money in this way is the best thing to do - just that it is an easier way of saving money than using Linux.
- Linux does require certain things of you. In particular, you must be willing to read documentation before doing things, and to ask questions. If you expect things to work when you click on them but don't really understand what they do, Linux is not for you.

As a translator, what reasons might I have for using Linux?

Linux is a philosophy. A significant part of that philosophy is of course the idea of people all over the world contributing from their own pool of resources - something that translators are doing more and more anyway. There is another side to the Linux philosophy though, and that is the idea that software is a tool. Think of yourself as a craftsman or craftswoman, and Linux as a toolbox from which you select the best tool for a particular job. Windows, by contrast, is not a toolbox, but an environment. You work within the environment provided by the software. More often than not, you don't know what the software is doing. Some people are happier that way. More than anything else, your preference for a "toolkit" or an "environment" will be what makes you prefer Linux or Windows.

© Marc Prior 2003-2006



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