The Least Translated Language?

Those living in a big city have surely noticed the large amount of text present in the most unlikely places of the cityscape. Many of these texts are the “work” of gangs, who use graffiti as their newspaper or their bulletin board. These inscriptions mark their territory and also send clear messages to members of rival gangs. If a person is able to read gang graffiti, he or she should be able to understand what is going on in a particular neighborhood.

While researching for this post, I stumbled upon an app designed exclusively to unravel the elusive code of gang graffiti. Based on a technology for recognizing symbols, its algorithm was modified to interpret the inscriptions used by gangs to mark their territory, challenge rivals and proclaim a group’s power.

Gang graffiti can provide vital information in preventing criminal activities. The ability to track the movement of gangs allows communities to develop strategies to mitigate violent incidents, among other issues.

Users of the Graffiti Automatic Recognition and Interpretation (GARI) app take a photograph of graffiti and upload it to the database along with its GPS coordinates, date and time. The user then receives a detailed analysis of gang affiliation, an interpretation of the graffiti’s message and the geographic location of similar graffiti.

Unlike the large majority of interpreted texts to be translated, graffiti has a low to relative level of standardization, making it difficult to understand right away. There is no instruction manual serving as a guide to this winding code, and a symbol can vary a great deal when drawn by different people.

The ability to understand this language means giving the appropriate importance to supra- or extra-linguistic elements that have a crucial contextual relevance to the translation of the graffiti, such as the color of the letters (which could indicate membership in a particular crew) or typography (which just like the spelling of an ordinary language, allows us to identify the graffiti’s origin).