Lost in Translation

Very good piece by Political Penguin on a pretty crappy piece of reporting by the BBC.

More than £100m of public money is spent on translation services in the UK, the BBC has learned.

Local authorities spend £25m, NHS trusts £55m and the courts £31m on interpreting languages.

Refuse collection guidelines and one-to-one smoking sessions are among the services which have incurred costs because translations were provided. 

Hang on a second… refuse collection guidelines and one-to-one smoking sessions?

So we’re not just talking about translation services (i.e. the written word) we’re also including intepretation services (i.e. the spoken word) in this £100+ million. Sorry but that’s two different things requiring two different approaches, and while we’re being a touch pedantic, does this figure apply only to translation/interpretation in foreign languages, or is the money spent on British Sign Language interpretation included in this figure as well, as that’s also a very different matter from either of the first two?

Let’s just run through this…

BSL? There is no argument – this is about equality/disability so spend the money and quit whining about the cost.

Interpretation services – well even if you think that in an ideal world that everyone should learn English, in reality some migrants don’t or don’t learn enough to express themselves clearly and if that puts them is situation where they really do need access to an interpreter – say a visit to a GP or hospital, etc – then you just have to swallow the cost. Sorry, but an interpreter works out a damn siight cheaper than a misdiagnosis and a malpractice suit.

Translation services – now here’s where things are a little different.

First, if you think you’re improving communication with minority communities by providing printed translations then very often your barking up the wrong tree, and badly.

It’s not true of all minority communities, but amongst those I know best (South Asian) the issue you’re up against, more often than not, is not language but literacy.

It does depend on which community you’re dealing with and where exactly they’re from on the subcontinent, but by and large, and especially in India, education still tends to be bilingual – people learn to read and write in both their ‘native’ language, be that Panjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujerati, etc. and in English, largely because English is still very much the core language of the Indian Civil Service. Matters are made a bit more complicated by the subcontinent’s many regional languages and dialects, some of which lack a written form, such as Mirpuri and Syhleti, but as general rule of thumb, if communication is your goal, then you should ask first whether the community you’re dealing with is generally literate, before worrying to much about languages and, in a lot of cases, would be better off using audio -visual recordings of spoken language to get your point across.

Translated materials are also too often produced for tokenistic reasons (to be ‘inclusive’) and an infuriatingly tokenistic fashion. I’ve lost count of the number of Local Government reports I’ve seen and been sent in which what one receives is a 100+ page report (all in English) with a one page ‘executive summary’ stuck at the front in half a dozen different languages – and all to supposedly be ‘inclusive’ or ‘serve the needs of the community’. Sorry, fuck off. If a community needs such a report in its own language, its needs the whole fucking report not just a one page summary stuck at the front like a spare fucking dinner.

This is not difficult – if you’re going to provide translations, then at least have the fucking courtesy to do the job properly and not fuck about with summaries and then think you’ve done a good job of being inclusive – you haven’t, you’ve just been a twat.

Look, I’ve no problem whatsoever with the public sector providing printed materials in translation, provided its done properly and its understood why its being done.

There are very good reasons for providing translations, which may be to facilitate better communication – if you’re dealing with a community that is literate – or to show respect for a community’s culture and traditions (of which language is a significant part) or even just to provide a genuine choice. Some people may well be bilingual but prefer their reading material in their native language because that’s just what they prefer, and that’s also fine by me.

But it has to admitted that the public sector does unnecessarily piss inordinate amounts of money down the drain each year on translations that are, at best, useless and at worst, just produced in downright tokenistic and insulting manner, and it does so because it fails to do the one thing that businesses – who don’t, as rule, like to piss money away – do as a matter, almost, of routine…

…market research.

As usual, this is not fucking rocket science, in fact I can provide a simple three-step plan to not wasting money on worthless translations and getting the best from your available resources.
Step 1. Understand who you are trying to communicate with.

Step 2. Understand what you are trying to communicate and for what purpose.

Step 3. Go to your target audience, talk to them, tell them what you’re trying to achieve and ask them what will work best for them – after all, it’s their language and their community, so they’re going to know what they need a hell of a lot better that you are.

You see. Fucking simple. And all it takes is a little thought, a little planning and a bit of basic courtesy.

All a bit to easy for bureaucrats, then.

4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. “As usual, this is not fucking rocket science,”
    It is rocket science, rocket science is easy, just Newton’s Third Law. What is difficult is rocket engineering, making the fucking things go up instead of bang.

  2. I work in the communications section of a public sector organisation and for the last year have been looking at this as we knew that what we were doing wasn’t reflecting the make-up of our communities. And I’m now about to start work on a policy for our organisation based on research with community groups and our individual customers whose first language isn’t English. It was surprising the amount of public sector bodies who have’nt asked their customers as yes I agree it makes perfect sense (especially from a marketers point of view). The final outcome doesn’t please everyone in the organisation but at least it’s based on research rather than an English speaking individual deciding. Our research didn’t include BSL users or people with sight problems; that’s stage 2 for 2007.

  3. Dear Brothers,
    I studied your web site. You have arranged very nice teachings for all the nations, in the long run of your service for the nations of the all the world. I am from Islamic Republic of Pakistan where it is difficult to have Radio and TV channel for preaching purposes. As the religious extremists and fanatics are very active they would not allow us to do that here; the Satan has real strong hold over everything. We humbly request you to expand your outreach your program in Urdu and Punjabi and other Pakistani languages so that Urdu and Punjabi and other Pakistan languages speaking may listen your message particularly in Pakistan and generally in the world. Urdu and Punjabi are the languages spoken and understood by more than one sixth of the total population of the world. Urdu is spoken in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan and also in Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran and others. I would ask you to pray and share it among the brethrens there. I would offer my services for being translator, recorder and distribution/sales. I pray that God may bless you to take a good decision. May His perfect will be done! Grace and Peace be with you, all brethrens.
    Yours brother in Christ
    Nadeem, Pakistan

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