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Technology: no substitute for using your head

08/07/2017

It seems that some years ago the city council in Wales’s second-largest city, Swansea (in Welsh, Abertawe – ‘mouth of the River Tawe’), wanted to prevent lorries that delivered goods to a local supermarket from taking short cuts through an adjoining housing estate. So it designed the following English-language road sign: No entry for heavy goods vehicles: residential site only.

Since public signs in Wales were by then required to be bilingual, the text was sent (evidently by e-mail) to the council’s in-house translation service, so that a Welsh version could be produced. The response was almost instantaneous: Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd: anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu. How do I know it was almost instantaneous? Because it was an automatic message that meant ‘I am not in the office right now: please send me any translation work.’

Although as a Saeson (Saxon) my own knowledge of Welsh is very basic, I can recognise the words for I am not (nid wyf), any (unrhyw), office (since the UK government’s former Welsh Office in London, whose tasks have since been transferred to the devolved Welsh parliament in Cardiff, was known in Welsh as Swyddfa Gymreig) and even translation (gyfieithu, which is derived from the word iaith, meaning ‘language’). So you might have thought a civil servant in Wales’s second-largest city would have realised this was not the answer the council was looking for.

Unfortunately, Welsh tends to be less widely known in urban areas; and although Welsh lessons are now compulsory in Welsh schools, whoever read the reply from the translation service could have moved to Wales from some other part of the UK and never had the benefit of them, or was simply too busy (or couldn’t be bothered) to check.

As you’ll by now have guessed, the out-of-office reply was forwarded as it stood to the department responsible for making road signs (where it seems no-one noticed the error either – but perhaps it was centralised somewhere in England, and they just copied what they were sent); and, as the BBC online news service reports, Swansea’s Welsh-speaking drivers were ‘bemused’ to read the hilarious results: No entry for heavy goods vehicles: residential site only / Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd: anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu (‘I am not in the office right now: please send me any translation work’).

Photographs of the blunder were soon sent to Golwg, a Welsh-language magazine that took a gleeful delight in pointing out such errors – which it claimed were distressingly common. A local journalist with the unmistakably Welsh name Dylan Iorwerth was quoted as saying ‘When they’re proofing signs, they should really use someone who speaks Welsh.’

All very true, in a country that’s now officially bilingual. Yet in all the commentary I’ve read on the subject, a more important point seems to have been overlooked: why did Swansea council’s in-house translation service send its out-of-office replies in Welsh only?

Consider who the service’s customers must have been. If they needed a Welsh translation and couldn’t produce one themselves, it seems more than likely that they knew little or no Welsh. So, at the very least, you would have expected a bilingual reply – or perhaps even one in English only (for by then there were no native Welsh-speakers left who did not have a perfect command of both languages – especially if they were working for a city council).

But here two frankly irrelevant assumptions evidently came into play. One was that a Welsh translation service should go out of its way to advertise its linguistic identity and promote the use of its language – which in effect meant telling its customers ‘If you can’t understand Welsh, we can’t help you’. Yet the whole point was that its customers couldn’t understand Welsh, which was why they required help in the first place. And what they got here was the opposite of help.

The other assumption was that technological progress is by definition a good thing, and the faster and briefer the better. Automatic replies (which you invariably can’t reply to yourself – the dreaded ‘no-reply’ e-mails) are all very well in their place; but if they can be mistaken for something else, they are worse than useless. The out-of-office reply on a road sign in South Wales is a perfect example.

Of course, you would perhaps expect a correct translation to have been preceded by words such as ‘Dear X, Thank you for your e-mail of X. The requested Welsh translation is attached.’ But e-mail communications increasingly tend to dispense with such common courtesies – the faster and briefer the better. With results to match.

In short, technology is no substitute for using your head.

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From → Languages, Technology

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