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Walking the talk with mother tongue

Recent errors in Chinese and Tamil prompt the question: Is enough being done to ensure proper usage?

When it comes to the use of Singapore's official mother tongue languages in government communications, a mistake can easily annoy a lot of people. And recently, there have been several.

Those in the spotlight included the wrong rendition of a Chinese character during the launch of the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign.

A poster on the rostrum at the event had listed the characters ting shuo du xie, intending to refer to the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing in Chinese. However, the character for du was wrongly rendered as another similar- looking character - which meant, to show disrespect.

In a similar incident also reported recently by The Straits Times, typos were spotted in the Tamil translation of the National Day Parade theme #OneNation Together in a booklet given to pupils at a rehearsal. The phrase should have read "Let's come together as one nation", but some letters were not in place, while others were missing, making the words unintelligible.

Apologies were issued by the organisers of the Speak Mandarin Campaign and the NDP 2017 executive committee chairman, Colonel Melvin Ong Yoke Lam, who told ST: "Such typographical errors are avoidable and should not have happened for the NDP."

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign event, herself apologised a day after and acknowledged that it was "a serious mistake".

Indeed, many Chinese intellectuals were upset about the error, as it seemed to reflect a careless attitude towards the language by the authorities. There have been a number of mistakes in Chinese materials and signage over the years, such as when Bras Basah became xiongzhao (brassiere) basah in Chinese on the National Heritage Board website in 2013.


Some have long voiced unhappiness that government websites and signs in public places are by and large only in English and hardly in Chinese, Malay or Tamil.

Given this backdrop, it was all the more galling to many of the Chinese elite that the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which is meant to promote the language, cannot get a basic Chinese character right.

What's more, it followed an episode only last month involving what at first appeared to be the banning of Chinese-language signs in a foodcourt and supermarket at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which drew a lot of flak from Chinese newspaper readers.

While NTU later clarified that there was no ban on Chinese signs as long as English was used too, the confusion over the policy caused much anguish. The university had not stated that there was no such ban in its first media response to a Chinese evening daily.

NTU is now investigating the incident.

Many felt the apparent ban was ironic as NTU has strong Chinese community links, having taken over the campus of the former Chinese-medium Nanyang University, and hosting the Chinese Heritage Centre. The unhappiness grew to the extent that NTU president Bertil Andersson had to apologise.

These incidents, involving three sets of apologies, have raised concerns about Singaporeans' grasp of these languages and whether the authorities are walking the talk when it comes to ensuring their proper use.


While Singapore's bilingual policy, mandating the study of English and a mother tongue (MT)language, has been lauded for giving Singaporeans an edge in English, the average Singaporean's grasp of his official mother tongue is shaky.


All you need is one word to be wrong and it annoys people, especially materials seen by the public, such as road signs.

MR R. RAJARAM, who chairs the Tamil Language Council.

With the demise of vernacular schools by the late 1980s, English became the dominant language of instruction in schools, threatening to put the other languages in the shade.

Concerns about falling standards cut across the three MT languages, though the Malay language seems to have escaped its share of errors.

"So far there has been nothing major reported in the media, but I'm sure errors do happen," said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, who used to head Bulan Bahasa, or Malay Language Month.

While Mandarin and Tamil are the dominant languages only for 45.2 and 37.6 per cent of Chinese and Indian families here respectively, nearly eight in 10 Malay families still speak Malay predominantly.

Even then, English has made inroads among Malay families over the years - from 2.3 per cent in 1980 to 20.5 per cent speaking English mainly in the 2015 Census.

The chairman of the Bulan Bahasa 2017 committee and MP for Jurong GRC, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, told The Straits Times earlier this month that the challenge is in getting people to use Malay in their daily lives and to appreciate the importance of preserving the Malay culture through the language.

As for Tamil, errors in the language in public signs and communications materials have become so common that a review panel was convened last year to look into how errors can be minimised.

Some examples of errors included rendering Tan Kah Kee MRT station wrongly in Tamil and even translating "Thank you" as "Thandri" instead of "Nandri".

"All you need is one word to be wrong and it annoys people, especially materials seen by the public, such as road signs," said Mr R. Rajaram, who chairs the Tamil Language Council.

There had been concerns about how the Tamil taught in schools was too formal and literary, and not widely used by students in their daily lives. In 2008, a revised curriculum was introduced in schools, aimed at making Tamil a living language for students.

Like translation errors in Tamil, there has been a host of glaring and embarrassing mistakes in Chinese, including once when translators with no idea of local Chinese culture rendered the Hungry Ghost Festival as xiongyali guijie - Hungarian Ghost Festival - in a tourism brochure.


The lack of bilingual civil servants and a lack of quality control over translation into the mother tongue languages have led to blunders over the years.

That said, in the last 10 years, much more has been done to improve the standards of translation and interpretation in Singapore.

Last Monday, the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), formerly UniSIM, held a translation conference to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its bachelor's course in translation and interpretation, the first such degree in Singapore. This added to a graduate diploma in the field at NTU, which was introduced in 2005 and has since been turned into a master's course.

After questions were raised in Parliament over various slipshod translations in government communications, a National Translation Committee, chaired by a minister of state, was set up in 2014 to improve translation standards in government agencies. In schools, translation is offered as a subject in four junior colleges and a translation scholarship was introduced in 2015 by the Ministry of Communications and Information, as academics Eddie Kuo and Brenda Chan noted in their volume on Language, under the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Chronicles series.

While these moves are good, freelance translator and former journalist Lim Woan Fei said: "The root of the problem lies in the mindset."

It is important to recognise why translation into MT languages is needed, which is mainly to cater to Singaporeans who do not understand English, she noted, instead of going through the motions and failing to take translation seriously.

While government ministries are paying more attention to vetting translations, the message has not filtered down to the ground, with translation errors still common in notices put up by town councils and grassroots groups, she added.

Proper vetting and developing a pool of bilingual public officers - two of the recommendations released by the Tamil review panel in January - can apply to translations in Chinese and Malay as well.

But as Mr Rajaram noted, these will take time to be implemented.

It is hard to imagine now, but Singapore used to be a translation hub from the early 1800s, with the translation of Western and Chinese works into regional languages.

As an example, take the fact that pioneer businessman and scholar Lim Boon Keng was the translator of The Li Sao: An Elegy On Encountering Sorrows, an English version of the famous work by Chinese poet Qu Yuan. This carried endorsements from sinologist H.A. Giles and Nobel Prize-winning Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, as Mr Tan Dan Feng, co-founder of The Select Centre, which promotes translation and intercultural efforts, noted at the SUSS translation conference.

While it may be a stretch for the Lion City to regain its past glory as a translation hub, hopefully the recent uproar over mother tongue bloopers will serve as a reminder that the proper translation and use of these languages matters, and is something which government agencies should not pay lip service to.

Correction note: An earlier version of the story misspelt NTU president Bertil Andersson's name. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2017, with the headline 'Walking the talk with mother tongue'. Print Edition | Subscribe