Honest but unhelpful II

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According to the BBC, the Swansea council should have gotten a second opinion on this road sign:


The cited article says that the council emailed the English text to their Welsh translator, and gave the response to the sign painters. Unfortunately, according to the article, the response meant "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".

This is a step up from "Translate server error", but not a big step.

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29 Comments »

  1. Bob Moore said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    I am left wondering who this automated reply could possibly be intended for. Since virtually all Welsh speakers also speak English, surely this person's clients are mainly English speakers who do not speak Welsh. But those are exactly the folks who would not understand the message.

  2. Karen said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    Perhaps the response was bilingual, but they assumed the Welsh was their answer?

  3. Bobbie said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

    Cosnider this: The automated response is in Welsh and in English. Although the council members can read the English, somehow they figure that the Welsh has to be the **real answer.

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

    Given we're talking about government here, that does not even rank in the more bizarre things they might do.

  5. Paul said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

    This is an extreme example, which is amusing and embarrassing, but there are plenty of small translation errors and spelling mistakes in bilingual English/Welsh signage — see this Flickr group for more.

    Unicode is a blessing: see this sign, where dŵr ('water') appears in supermarket signage as d_r; ASCII isn't too fond of circumflexes on 'w's. English speakers sometimes ignorantly make fun of Welsh, claiming it doesn't have any vowels; in fact, Welsh just has different orthographical conventions from English, with both w and y representing vowels ([ʊ/u] and [ə/ɨ], respectively), and either can appear with circumflexes (denoting a long vowel, though not all long vowels have circumflexes).

    I am one of many native speakers of English in Wales who are learners of Welsh. I'm not yet competent or confident enough to provide much in the way of bilingual material myself, and I'd certainly need translations checking for official purposes, but it doesn't take very much Welsh to spot an error like this!

  6. Bill Poser said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

    If the automated response is only in Welsh, I would guess that it is meant as an assertion of Welsh linguistic rights. I have encountered monolingual voicemail messages and so forth in a number of obscure languages where I am fairly sure that the author was making a point rather than ignorant of what would be effective communication.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

    Let's keep in mind that this was a BBC article, so the facts may be somewhat different from the story that it tells.

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

    I have the good fortune to actually live in Swansea (and to understand Welsh …).

    The automated reply will certainly have been bilingual, and the ludicrous misinterpretation that of the recipient.

    Welsh linguistic nationalism often comes across as heavy-handed, but the language faces overwhelming pressure from English and is endangered even so.

    Bill Poser:
    What's with this "obscure"?
    Cae dy ben!

  9. Bill Poser said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    David Eddyshaw,

    Bill Poser:
    What's with this "obscure"?
    Cae dy ben!

    I didn't say that Welsh is obscure. I just compared this example to cases that I have encountered involving languages a good deal more obscure than Welsh.

  10. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

    For more road-sign mistranslations, see "How to baffle Welsh cyclists."

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

    Bill Poser,

    OK, I forgive you,

    Cymru am byth

  12. Bill Poser said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 1:04 am

    David Eddyshaw,

    Actually, when explaining to non-native people about the lateral fricatives so common in the native languages of British Columbia, I often cite Welsh and Toisan Chinese as languages that have lateral fricatives with which they might be familiar.

  13. Adam Roberts said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 4:40 am

    It's not purely random idiocy, though, I'd say. If we imagine a non-Welsh speaker charged with the business of getting this sign made: s/he does not understand the Welsh (obviously) but can see that (a) the English is two sentences; so is the Welsh; (b) the second sentence has longer words; ditto the Welsh; (b) the English starts with 'No' for which 'Nid' looks ball-park-like (cf 'Non', Nyet').

  14. Virtual Linguist said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 7:28 am

    Swansea is not a Welsh-speaking stronghold, but nevertheless it is shocking and shameful that no-one in the council offices knew enough Welsh, they couldn't even recognise the word "please", to realise that this wasn't a translation of the English original.

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 7:37 am

    Bill Poser:

    Diolch yn fawr; given the relative numbers of Toisan Chinese speakers and Welsh speakers, I accept the coupling of the two (as by implication non-obscure) as full amends …

    On the heavy-handed Welsh linguistic nationalism angle, I remember a girl at university (in England) who used to insist on speaking Welsh if anyone present could understand, regardless of how many could not. Possibly she is now in charge of language policy here …

    Incidentally, she married an Englishman, but she made him learn Welsh.

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    Virtual linguist:

    Reluctant as I am to defend my local council, I feel that in the interests of truth I should point out that there isn't any "please" in the Welsh sentence. It just says "send" (plural) (anfonwch)

    The Welsh, incidentally, is the formal written sort, quite unlike any colloquial modern dialect, which even native speakers have to consciously learn.

    "Nid" actually does mean "not".

  17. Nic Dafis said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:08 am

    Another classic example which you might enjoy, is "Pedestrians Look Right – Cerddwyr Edrychwch i'r Chwith".

    Chwith means "left". You can guess the rest.

  18. Adrian said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    I'm not a Welsh speaker, but I recognise the word "swyddfa" from Swddfa'r Post: Post Office.

  19. Kevin Iga said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    A sign in Southern California, between Los Angeles and San Diego, near an immigration checkpoint, says "Caution" in English (to English-speaking drivers, warning to be careful of hitting fleeing illegal immigrants) and "Prohibido" (Prohibitted) in Spanish (to the illegal immigrants). I remember seeing this version that is in the link, but not recently; the signs around Interstate 5 don't seem to have the "Prohibido" part anymore.

  20. Translation follies « Glossographia said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    [...] pm (Linguistics, Literacy and writing) This BBC News story has been making the rounds on various blogs, but in case you haven't seen [...]

  21. Tim Silverman said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    @Virtual Linguist: we don't know that no one in the council offices speaks Welsh, only that no one in the council offices who saw the proposed sign text speaks Welsh. In fact we don't even know that … perhaps someone understood the Welsh text, but thought it would be much funnier if they kept quiet about it …

  22. Dafydd Tomos said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

    I've seen some of those auto-responders from Swansea council staff, and it's likely that the text they've used is simply the first line of the email (which makes the person who asked for the translation even more stupid). The auto-responder will have most likely said "Please send any work to be translated [newline] to my colleague, A Person [email address]

    It's interesting that this particular translation is one of the the few that's gone massively viral – at least for Welsh. The numerous examples of Scymraeg that have arisen over the years shows a procedural problem that is extremely to fix with something called 'proof-reading'.

    It's not always practical or even necessary for every Welsh language publication, leaflet, website etc to be designed/layed out/coded by a Welsh-speaker. Even though it may be quite easy for a non Welsh speaker to insert the Welsh text directly from a translated document, there will always be little snags in terms of layout, character set issues and other mistakes that would be obvious to a Welsh speaker.

    At work, when developing bilingual websites, I can easily spot such problems for sites before they go live, but it's not my job or responsibility. So we always get the client to review the content before it's made public. Most sign-making is handled electronically these days, so it's not like it's a difficult process to double-check a sign before it's created (in fact you'd think it would be even more important, given the cost of manufacture).

    As an aside I read that the Welsh Assembly Government has complained recently to one of its outsourced translation providers about the quality of the translations they've received. This is despite the fact that all the text is provided directly from experienced freelance translators. So the translation company is now planning the radical step of passing back the text to other translators for proof-reading. It's such a common sense approach that you wonder why they've taken so long to think of it really (I'll answer it myself – it costs more money and the company only won the contract by undercutting the competition on price).

  23. Neil Jones said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    I am a Welsh speake who comes from Swansea originally. I had this passed to me earlier in the week and it left me rolling about laughing. It is one of the funniest things In have ever seen. It is entirely predictable unfortunately. The local council does not proofread the signs they put up. Around the council's headquarters at the Civic Centre in Swansea there must be a dozen signs with spelling errors on them. This blog shows an other example where sign has been erected that is actually quite impolite
    http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2008/07/17/swansea-introduces-public-cottaging-areas/

  24. Alfredo Reino » Archivo del Blog » Traducciones al galés said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 10:59 am

    [...] Visto en Language Log. [...]

  25. Francis Tyers said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    Or they could have just put it through machine translation, which although not perfect might have given them a clue that the "translation" might not have been what they were looking for:

    "am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to translate him ."

  26. Mark Eisner said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    This reminds me of the following letter, published in the New York Times May 9, 1971:

    The second of E. J. Kan Jr.'s articles concerning his Far East trip, this one about Taipei, Saigon and other places (Travel section, April 18) was as entertaining as the first, though I suspect not always intentionally. His reference to the Saigon airport as "Cain Hut Thuoc" was surprising, since news dispatches when the airport has been under Vietcong fire have referred to it as Tansonnhut. Remember a few words of Vietnamese, however, I realized that Mr. Kahn had miscopied the words from a sign which said "Cam Hut Thuoc," which means No Smoking! In this respect he has joined another unwitting punster, Robert S. McNamara: the former Secretary of Defense originally pronounced the name of that sad country "Veet Nam," to rhyme with "fleet Sam," apparently thereby designating it in Vietnamese as "sick duck!"

    Mark J. Eisner
    Assistant Professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

    To which Mr. Kahn replied: Mea Culpa, which I clearly recall from my extensive study of Latin in high school means "Keep off the grass."

    It was not until a few years later that I fully understood Kahn's response, but then I didn't originally understand the posters that appeared around Ithaca when Hunna Johns was mayor, urging people to "Smoke Mayor Hunna," either.

    Forgive the absence of diacritical markings in the original letter — a version of the sign with the pictogram that only later came into common use can be seen at

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hambox/1348360204/

    — Mark Eisner

  27. I want my MTV: Miscellaneous Oct 26-Nov 1 at Highly Derivative said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    [...] Language Log posted about a great sign in Wales [...]

  28. Achim said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 8:18 am

    @ Tim Silverman: Your post just reminded me of xkcd

  29. Kate from Caerphilly said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    I am not a Welsh speaker but I do recognise some of the words such as "Swyddfa" (office) and "waith" work, so I could see that it wasn't a proper translation of whats written above.

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