Translation follies

This BBC News story has been making the rounds on various blogs, but in case you haven’t seen it:

Officials in Swansea, Wales, UK, emailed a translator, requesting a Welsh translation for a bilingual road sign that in English reads:

No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.

Unfortunately, the emailed response they got was:

Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu.

which apparently translates to ‘I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.’

Oops. (see also this example from Language Log)

The linguistic situation in Wales is fascinating due to a strong linguistic resurgence related to Welsh national identity.  Although Welsh has never been an endangered language (certain parts of it have a majority of Welsh speakers), it is spoken to widely different degrees in different regions.  But by regulation, all road signs in Wales are supposed to be bilingual, creating a huge market for translation. (This stands in direct contrast to my former home province of Quebec, where bilingual public signs are forbidden – they must be in French only).   While Swansea is relatively anglophone (only 13% of the city’s inhabitants are fluent in Welsh, according to 2001 census data), the rule applies nonetheless.  Whether bilingual public signage actually provides support for language retention is an open and very interesting question, but at the very least it reflects a changing language ideology in the region in favour of Welsh.

Another set of interesting issue around this mistranslation is raised in the comments on the Language Log post.   Bob Moore wonders, “I am left wondering who this automated reply could possibly be intended for. Since virtually all Welsh speakers also speak English, surely this person’s clients are mainly English speakers who do not speak Welsh. But those are exactly the folks who would not understand the message.”  Bill Poser suggests that it is possible that a Welsh linguistic nationalist would have a monolingual Welsh auto-reply as an expression of identity (a situation that would be quite familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Montreal).   However, a couple of other respondents point out that perhaps the auto-reply was bilingual, but that the hapless recipient took the English to be the auto-reply part of the message, and then understood the Welsh part to be the actual translation.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

8 thoughts on “Translation follies”

  1. Welsh is rather a con, since there are no monoglot Welsh speakers and probably haven’t been for a century. I remember going to North Wales, where there is quite a bit of Welsh spoken. All the privately owned shops advertised in English. It was only state-run enterprises that could afford to waste time and money on signs in Welsh. That sort of thing — forced levies for a favoured minority — is always a conspiracy by the governing classes against the electorate.

  2. Roger,

    Of course you are right that there are no monoglot Welsh speakers. But with respect, this doesn’t mean that there is no good reason to have state-sponsored bilingualism, because language is an important source of national and personal identity. And there are certainly many Welsh speakers for whom Welsh is a first/native language, and for whom it would be more convenient and personally satisfying to have bilingual signs. As for whether it is a ‘conspiracy by the governing classes against the electorate’, there is considerable support among the electorate for bilingualism, so it’s hard to see any conspiracy.

  3. Roger: Since there are very few monoglot Maoris or Navaho left, can we assume that their languages and cultures are also a con?

    Bilingualism wasn’t our idea, byt.

  4. Nic: No problem. One of my closest friends is doing her graduate work in Aberystwyth so I have had some opportunity to do some comparison/contrast with the situation in Quebec where things are much weirder than in Wales (e.g., the legal prohibition of English and bilingual signs).

  5. There’s no conspiracy here that I can see. Why is it so hard for people to comprehend a bilingual Wales? I don’t understand this. And why shouldn’t there be one? Because our nation is part of the UK? Nonsense. Someone said they found it amazing that we must have English on signage at all. You’d not find signage in France in English and French, would you? So why must we have it in Wales. If there’s a waste of money on signage and publications its publishing them in English, not Welsh. And setting financial concerns aside, why shouldn’t Welsh speakers have the option of signage and publications and social interactions in their own language? Hummmm? If we’re to get rid of any language, it should be English, not Welsh.

    In the U.S. we have no problems publishing multi-lingual documents and yet we’re a predominantly English speaking nation. (I come from California originally.) So why shouldn’t Wales have a bilingual society? It’s no waste of time and money and I think to say so says a great deal about the attitudes of the writer toward other cultures and other languages.

    There are plenty of Welsh speakers in Swansea and many of those that may not speak it understand it. To my mind this was simply a mistake made by someone who could not speak the language and was unfortunately picked up by somebody and blown way out of proportion. Mistakes happen in any bi-lingual culture. Why is it such an issue because it happens to be Welsh?

  6. Peggi: I absolutely agree with you regarding the value of bilingual signage in Wales (and presume you were directing your comment at the first respondent above). Language is such an important part of social identity for many people. Having said this, it would be problematic to prohibit English signs given that (virtually?) all Welsh speakers understand English but the converse is not true.

    I’m Canadian and lived for ten years in Montreal, Quebec, and one of the issues there is that English is prohibited by law in many official contexts, including public signs, on the grounds that bilingualism is potentially dangerous (because it encourages francophones to switch to English). But this only follows if we accept the notion that each nation should have one and only one language, and that it is the duty of the state to enforce the notion of social homogeneity. Fortunately it seems that this sort of rigidity is not present in the Welsh context to any meaningful degree.

    For the record, I don’t think this has become an issue specifically because it’s Welsh, but because it is hilarious that this particular error was propagated with no one noticing.

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