'Hungary Ghost Festival': Volunteers step up to prevent translation gaffes, improve accuracy

(Clockwise from left) Mr Neo Keng Hwee, Ms Sharmelee Selvaraji and Ms Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar are among those who registered for the Citizen Translators project. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF NEO KENG HWEE, SHARMELEE SELVARAJI, NUR-EL-HUDAA JAFFAR

SINGAPORE - Hungry Ghost Festival was mistranslated as "Hungary Ghost Festival" in Chinese in a 2002 Singapore Tourism Board guide. This translation gaffe has stuck in Mr Neo Keng Hwee's mind, so he was quick to respond to a nationwide effort to crowdsource expertise to prevent such errors.

Following the launch of the Citizen Translators project in January, Mr Neo has given feedback on errors he has spotted in brochures.

Nearly 800 volunteers have registered for the Citizen Translators project so far, said Minister of State for Communications and Information Tan Kiat How at a virtual dialogue for these participants on Wednesday (Nov 10).

Under the initiative, citizen translators help identify translation-related errors in government communication materials in Singapore's four official languages. They can also review translated materials by government agencies.

These include content from the TraceTogether token collection website and promotional materials by the People's Association, for instance.

"Errors in translation are often made because the Chinese language has many homonyms (words that sound similar but have different meanings)," Mr Neo, 39, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer in Chinese studies, told The Straits Times.

At the dialogue with Mr Tan, who chairs the National Translation Committee that runs the project, Mr Neo suggested that the Government partner with polytechnics offering translation courses.

"This will help nurture the younger generation of students... and expose them to various genres of materials, so they can make an impact on the overall translation quality in Singapore," said the educator, who has taught Chinese for about 10 years.

For another citizen translator, Ms Sharmelee Selvaraji, the need for accurately translated materials hit home when the pandemic worsened in Singapore.

In April last year, the PhD student studying neuroscience at the National University of Singapore joined an informal chat group to translate Covid-19-related information to Tamil.

"People from the private and public sectors were messaging us for help to translate materials literally every day," said Ms Sharmelee, 26.

These translations were very important because some of them were used to inform migrant workers about the Covid-19 symptoms that they needed to report, she added.

When the Ministry of Communications and Information sent her an e-mail on the project in April last year, she instantly signed up. She has since been involved in its workshops and feedback exercises.

Meanwhile, freelance translator Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar hopes that her participation can help improve the translation of government communication to Malay.

The 51-year-old editorial consultant said: "Some of these translations seem like they are direct translations and can definitely afford to be friendlier."

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