Language gaffes – poor proficiency or just lapses in vetting process?

Language gaffes – poor proficiency or just lapses in vetting process?
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It might be a small thing to someone who is not good in the language or who may not even have spotted the error. But it does matter to those who are proficient in the language.

On Thursday, my Member of Parliament (MP), Lam Pin Min, made his rounds of house visits in the estate. One of his Residents’ Committee volunteers left a calling card with us since we did not get to see him (not his fault as we chose not to).

When the card, which contained all 4 languages, was posted online, friends of mine immediately spotted an error in the Chinese designation of Dr Lam.

Instead of “国会议员”, which means “parliamentarian”, the third character was wrongly written as “仪”.

A simple search on Google Translate would have solved the problem:

This raises several questions, such as: is proficiency in the language among the grassroots so poor that a simple mistake like this was made? Or is there a lack of adequate vetting processes before the cards are sent to print?

One would imagine that given the number of residents in the single-member constituency of Seng Kang West, there would be tens of thousands of cards printed at some costs. Therefore, one would reasonably expect that some work is put into the vetting process.

Earlier this week, there were also similar incidents reported in the media, particularly how a wrong Chinese character was used on a rostrum sign at the launch of the Speak Mandarin campaign, and Tamil typographic errors in National Day Parade pamphlets.

In the first instance, organisers had used the Chinese character for “to show disrespect” instead of the character for “read”.

Thankfully, the error was only on the sign on the rostrum and not on other campaign promotional materials.

“In the NDP case, there were typographical errors in the Tamil translation of the theme #OneNationTogether, printed on the NDP publicity pamphlets given to Primary 5 pupils from 162 schools before they attended the NDP’s National Education (NE) shows,” the Straits Times reported.

“The translation was supposed to read as “Let’s come together as one nation”. But in that translation, some letters were in the wrong places, while others were missing, making the words unintelligible.”

Organisers of the two events have apologised for the oversight.

About 4 months ago, poor language use was in the spotlight, and it again involved the grassroots organisations.

The Workers’ Party candidate for East Coast GRC, Gerald Giam, posted the following flyer which he had come across during one of his house visits. The flyer is from one of the Fengshan Residents Committees, left on the door of a resident’s home.

“Who is eligibility to be a Residents’ Committee volunteer?” the flyer said.

In case you can’t spot it, the word should be “eligible” and not “eligibility”.

Mr Giam did not take offence at the wrong use of words but for the fact that grassroots volunteers are rewarded or given benefits for doing “volunteer work”. That, however, is a story for another day.

Unfortunately, such language gaffes are not new and have happened from time to time.

And in case you think it is only government agencies which are prone to such mishaps, well even private companies and opposition parties have made such mistakes too.

One of the more infamous incidents involved the SingFirst political party which, during a press briefing during the elections in 2015, had a standing poster with literally jibberish in Tamil printed on it.

The Tamil words, as some pointed out, did not have any meaning at all.

All this, especially the latest incidents involving the Speak Mandarin campaign and the NDP pamphlets, come after the government had actually spoken about how it would be tightening the vetting process when it comes to language translations in such instances.

In January this year, a review panel had put forth a string of recommendations to catch potential mistakes before they are published, the Straits Times reported.

“This comes after a series of Tamil translation errors in recent years, such as the inaccurate translation of Tan Kah Kee MRT station in December 2015,” it said. “It had read wrongly as “paan kah kee” instead.”

Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Health Chee Hong Tat, who made the announcement, said the first measure is to tighten vetting procedures.

“We will require all government agencies to adopt a more rigorous process to vet and check their translated materials before they are made public,” he said.

But it does not seem that the processes have been tightened.

Also, some have questioned if language proficiency among Singaporeans has declined, given the simple mistakes which are made, and made rather often too. (See here.)

The guilty parties, in recent years, include the Singapore Tourism Board, the National Environment Agency, the Land Transport Authority, the National Heritage Board, town councils, grassroots organisations, even government ministries.

So, clearly the vetting processes which Mr Chee spoke about and promised have not materialised, or have not been adhered to by the agencies. It is quite simple, isn’t it? Before something goes to print, there must be at least two pairs of eyes which must have gone through the draft.

So, let’s be serious in tightening these processes.

Otherwise, as in some instances in the past, it will not just be a matter within our shores. And when they grab the international media spotlight, it will no longer be a laughing matter.

“Such mistakes are unforgivable and we can laugh at them among ourselves,” said Lee Cher Leng, an associate professor from the Chinese Studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in 2014, following foreign media reports of such gaffes.

“But now that it is covered in foreign media, it is no longer that funny to us already right?”