Vet translated work to minimise errors, public agencies urged

Sim Ann tells of three types of oversight in translation, and efforts to tackle problem

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann at a virtual dialogue yesterday to get more people to sign up as volunteer citizen translators to help pinpoint errors in government communication materials.
Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann at a virtual dialogue yesterday to get more people to sign up as volunteer citizen translators to help pinpoint errors in government communication materials.PHOTO: MCI

If material put out by a government agency has been translated but not vetted, public officers must assume that the work is not ready to be shown to the public, said Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann.

She gave this assurance of the efforts being made to minimise errors at a virtual dialogue yesterday as she outlined three types of oversight in translation that public officers must be aware of, even if they are not translators themselves.

These issues are: not finding the best translation companies for the job, an over-reliance on them to vet the finished product, and font compatibility issues, especially for Tamil and Chinese text.

Ms Sim, who is also chairman of the National Translation Committee, said in tackling these three issues, it became clear to the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) that it was not enough to instruct its information officers sent to different agencies on what to look out for, nor was it enough for permanent secretaries or the heads of statutory boards to be reminded.

This was because government communication materials are now handled by officers at many different levels, she noted. "And if so many officers are involved and not everyone understands the linguistic or technical pitfalls that might await them, we're just going to end up having to see the same kind of errors happen again and again."

Public officers need to be aware that some text that may appear as Tamil may not be so, and someone proficient in the language must look at it, she said.

"And if you haven't found someone to vet, you have to assume that this work is not safe to be published, or that it's not safe to be shown to the public," she added.

Ms Sim was addressing a question from a participant who asked what can be done about translation errors that occur in government publicity materials.

Yesterday's dialogue saw about 110 participants from the Tamil-and Malay-speaking communities.

A similar dialogue for Mandarin speakers last week was attended by more than 600 people.

The dialogues were part of an effort to get more members of the public to sign up as volunteer citizen translators to help identify errors in government communication materials and provide suggestions to refine translations, as well as for MCI to get feedback on translation issues that the public might be concerned about.

Among the issues raised were how the target audience should be kept in mind when translating materials, and whether it was possible for media outlets to standardise the use of certain terms.

Also present were two National Translation Committee members: Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam, and Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair.

Mr Nair said problems like gibberish text and errors still top the concerns for the Tamil community, followed by the standardisation of terms used by different sources.

Ms Rahayu said one challenge was ensuring that translations reflect the nuances of the culture. She said of the concerns raised: "I think it reflects our common desire to give stature to our mother tongue and maintain its use and sanctity within the community."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2021, with the headline 'Vet translated work to minimise errors, public agencies urged'. Subscribe