What’s in a translation?

by Angharad Prys, Communications Officer

15 February 2021

During our first meeting of the Building Bilingual Services Community of Practice, much was discussed about the need to ensure that the Welsh used when designing digital services was not translated, but rather drafted bilingually. Our aim should be to make public services easy to use in either Welsh or English.  

This is a great challenge, and if we had our million Welsh speakers, it might be easier. But we’re not there yet, and therefore need to consider a different solution, taking to account that a high percentage of the public sector depend on translators to supply Welsh content. 

Put yourself in the translator’s shoes 

Let us now put ourselves in the shoes of those translators. Most will translate 3,000 – 5,000 words a day, some working in-house but many working for numerous clients. If they are faced with a piece of work that is peppered with jargon, a literal translation might be the only practical solution.  

The name of this community would be a great example – ‘Community of Practice’. It is a new term for me and after much consideration, I settled for ‘Cymuned o Ymarferwyr’ (which means Community of Practitioners). I then saw the translation used elsewhere and realised that it should have been ‘Cymuned Arfer’.   

Let us translate it back to English – would it be ‘Community of habit’…?  When you think about what the community tries to achieve, would it not be better to call it ‘Cymuned drafod’ (which doesn’t work in English – discussing community) or, for a more authentic Welsh version, what about ‘Melin drafod’?  

Time to think 

Now, I have the luxury of time writing this piece. And from the example above, you can see why we often opt for the literal translation. If translators have to keep contacting their clients to understand the meaning of a sentence, creating a good, clear translation will become complex and costly. 

When I was thinking about this, I had a look at our own website and came across this line,  

“…. This means following an iterative or incremental approach, adjusting as we go along always focusing on delivering solutions that meet the needs of the users of the service…” 

Translated as 

“Mae hyn yn golygu dilyn ymagwedd ailadroddol neu fesul cam, gan addasu wrth i ni fynd a chanolbwyntio bob amser ar gyflawni datrysiadau sy’n bodloni anghenion defnyddwyr y gwasanaeth.”

The friends and family test 

There is nothing wrong with the translation – it is correct, and if you are working in the public sector, you’re likely to read it with little effort. But what if you put it through the ‘friends and family’ test? Would this be an example where they would look for that toggle button, and switch to the English? 

Should we be looking at the original English text, to make the translator’s life a little easier? What does ‘iterative and incremental approach’ actually mean? Is it: 

“This means testing and re-testing as we go along, making changes and always finding the answers that makes the journey easier for the user.” 

“Mae hyn yn golygu profi ac ail-brofi wrth ddatblygu, gan wneud newidiadau a dod o hyd i atebion sy’n gwneud hi’n haws i ddefnyddio’r gwasanaeth.”

Difference of opinion 

When it comes to using clear language, there are many different opinions, and strong feelings. Many would argue that the second version does not have the corporate / official language that is needed to reflect the status of an organisation and that is too simplified.  

I would argue that the primary purpose of a language is that people feel comfortable using it – and if the Welsh (or English) gives the illusion of unfamiliarity, you have lost them before you begin.   

These are all challenges the new community of practise will be exploring. It’s right that we really stop and think about the things that will make it easier for users of public services in Wales to engage in either Welsh or English. Our challenge is then to make those changes and make designing services that work bilingually part of what we do.   

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