In 2011 we published an interview on our website with Lobsang Monlam, the man behind one of the most popular and best-looking Tibetan fonts ever released. For years we’ve watched with excitement as Lobsang continued to break important ground in Tibetan technology, so we were eager to check in with him to see what he’s up to these days and how the technological landscape in Tibet has changed since we last spoke.
Trace Foundation: You said you bought your first laptop in 2003. How have computers changed since your first computer? What kind of computer do you work on now?
Lobsang Monlam: It has been a while since I purchased my first computer in 2003. I have used a quite few different computers since and destroyed a few along the way. I’ve also used a lot of different software. Computer hardware and software have both improved a lot. Thanks to the computer, Tibetan language–related work has benefited Tibetan communities over the past few years. I am still learning and testing software applications both on PCs and Macs. Nowadays, we also have smart phones and tablets, which are very relevant for languages. I am working on language-related applications for these tools. We’ve had to make a lot of software for these gadgets, and I need to catch up with a lot of software terminology.
TF: Do you have any early memories of technology—from your childhood? Any favorite toys?
LM: I’ve loved machines and drawing since childhood. I learned drawing when I was young. My favorite toys were machines. When I was growing up, Tibet was very poor, so we could not afford to buy toys. Therefore, I used to make wooden motor vehicles and cars to play with. When I was a child, I created an FM mic. This was the first machine I made. I also created umbrella and attempted to parachute off a cliff with it.
TF: Do you still use a pen to write?
LM: Apart from a few daily writings, I use the computer most of the time. But I still love to write with a pen.
TF: Before you developed your first Monlam font, what were the challenges of computing in the Tibetan language?
LM: There was very little software available for the Tibetan language. I’d never seen an Ume font, so I made a special effort to create one. We also faced difficulty in typing Tibetan Sanskrit stacking words. At that time, a few software applications enabled users to type in Sanskrit, but very few of them were free.
TF: How has the technological culture in Tibetan areas changed in the last five years? How many people own computers and use the Internet?
LM: Thanks to Unicode standardization, people inside and outside Tibetan areas are able to create a standard font that we can all share, and the quality and number of fonts have developed for better. Tibetan font conversion technology has improved, especially on the Internet. Still, compared with other languages, Tibetan falls far behind—in spell check and grammar check and in pronunciation software. Though everyone these days uses computers for writing, the general knowledge about computers is still poor in Tibetan communities. Therefore, I’ve given training workshops for Tibetan magazine and journal editors. In general, people use the computer, but very few possess basic knowledge about how it works.
TF: You mentioned that the Fourth Monlam package would include a variety of new fonts. Has that been released yet? How will the fourth package differ from previous versions?
LM: We are creating a few new fonts for the Fourth Edition of Monlam, which has not come out yet. We need to do more research regarding fonts. We’ve also added various clip art, such as Wingdings related to Tibetan symbols.
TF: What progress have you made on improving and developing the Monlam Standard Tibetan Language Software?
LM: Monlam Standard Tibetan Language Software is being upgraded to create an application with voice technology. If successful, it would be an enormous help to many. It would help blind people, for instance.
TF: In 2011, you mentioned some other programs that would need to be created to bring Tibetan technology up to speed. Can you talk a little bit more about where some of these technologies are today?
LM: In April 2012, I founded a company called Monlam Tibetan Information Technology Research Institute (སྨོན་ལམ་བོད་ཀྱི་བརྡ་འཕྲིན་ཞིབ་འཇུག་ཁང་།). We have nine people currently working on three major projects: 1. A dictionary project, 2. A grammar project, and 3. A pronunciation research project. Before developing spell-check software, we first need have a high-quality standard dictionary. Therefore, we are currently compiling a major dictionary. Traditional spell-check software can spell-check words with one space per word, but Tibetan words consist of two or more spaces per word. Therefore, this project is complicated, and we are researching solutions for this issue.
TF: What is the status of the dictionary? Do you have plans to make it available as a Web service? Have you talked to companies like Google or Apple about integrating your dictionary into their platforms?
LM: The dictionary has been improved a lot. The Monlam Dictionary can now be used both on Macs and on Windows. It can also be used on Android phones. Soon we will release the iPhone version. The Monlam Dictionary 1.1 will be released on April 20, 2013. Compared with previous versions, the current one is much faster, with improved spelling and performance. As part of compiling a comprehensive dictionary (སྨོན་ལམ་ཀུན་བཏུས་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ་), we are trying to collect all terms on Tibetan religion and culture. Since each religious term has different meaning for different religious schools, we have requested religious leaders of different religious schools set up editorial offices for the dictionary project in their respective monasteries. We have about fifty editors. We are also planning a project for contacting people from different regions and villages to collect local terms. Please check out www.monlamit.org for further information. I have not spoken to Google and Apple, but I will do so when opportunity arises. As a simple monk, it can be hard to contact them.
TF: You’ve distributed Monlam fonts, dictionary, and software to society free of charge. Can you talk more about why you do this and why it’s important, particularly for Tibetan people?
LM: Nowadays, the Tibetan language is almost dying out for number of reasons. If the Tibetan language dies out, it will be a great loss to the world, not to mention to Tibetan people. The Tibetan language has a rich culture, created through a succession of Tibetan scholars’ hard work. When a language is lost, the culture is lost, too. The real identity of the Tibetan people will be lost. In order to preserve it, we must create a good environment (for Tibetan language) in the sphere of information technology. To create such an environment, one cannot expect to profit from this work, since the majority people using Tibetan language are not economically well off. Therefore, I have always provided my services free of charge in the past, and this will be the case in the future. My main mission is to preserve the Tibetan language.
TF: How are you progressing in your English studies?
LM: I have studied English for six months, but I have not mastered it yet. I have made small improvements, mainly in my spoken language. English is very important, since most of the literature on computers comes out in English. I am able to pick up some of the knowlege from these books. I also have to contact software companies.
TF: Where can people access the programs you’ve developed?
LM: Our software can be downloaded from www.monlamlit.org. There are a number of websites in Tibetan areas that also post our products for download, and we produce DVDs and CDs to distribute our products.