On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Lost in translation

Last week, the social media zoomed in on the ministry’s official site which had a page listing out guidelines on “ethical clothing” that have to be adhered to by its staff.

Other interesting examples included “collared shirts and tight Malay civet berbutang three” for “berkolar baju Melayu cekak musang berbutang tiga” and “long-sleeve batik shirt with collar/mongoose fight made in Malaysia” for “Baju batik lengan panjang berkolar/cekak musang buatan Malaysia”.

There was also “shine closed” which was translated from “kasut bertutup”.

Thankfully, the Defence Ministry responded in double quick time – it not only took down the relevant pages but also posted an online clarification promising to make the necessary corrections. Still, time on the Internet moves by the milliseconds so the spread in cyberspace could not be so easily contained.

The ministry adopted the right and honourable approach by not offering any lame excuse or shifting the blame.

This is not the first time lazy and incompetent officials have got us into trouble. If they are not capable enough, they should seek the help of professionals.

Last April, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his entourage must have laughed their heads off when they saw the words in Chinese printed on the banner backdrop at the welcoming ceremony in Putrajaya.

The words were literally translated from the Bahasa Malaysia sentence, “Istiadat Sambutan Rasmi Sempena Lawatan Rasmi TYT Wen Jiabao Ke Malaysia” (Official welcoming ceremony in conjunction with the official visit of His Excellency Wen Jiabao to Malaysia).

The Chinese translation had so many serious syntax and grammatical errors that the Chinese-literate Malaysian ministers and members of the media could only cringe in embarrassment. Translated literally, it read, “Official welcoming ceremony, with him Wen Jiabao His Excellency’s official visit Malaysia”.

Our officials apologised to Wen Jiabao and this was widely reported in China.

Although Bahasa Malaysia is our official language, it is necessary that all our official websites also have an English version simply because English is the language of the Internet. There are many convenient translation tools on the Internet, such as Google Translate and Yahoo BabelFish, but while these tools claim to be able to translate practically every language on the planet to another, they are not meant to substitute the services of professionals.

I decided to use Google Translate to translate “pakaian yang menjolok mata” and was pleasantly surprised that the English equivalent was “dress scantily”; it was certainly much better than “clothes that poke eye”. But on the more difficult phrases, this tool failed miserably.

What our ministries should do is to engage professionals who are not only competent in English but are able to make their websites attractive. Two ministries – Home, and Women, Family and Community Development – have websites that are regarded as more “innovative and approachable” and they will certainly draw more visitors.

The bigger issue here is that Malaysians have to accept the reality that horrendous English is here to stay. The day our leaders killed English as a medium of instruction and further downgraded the language as a subject in schools was the beginning of its demise.

Teaching hours for the subject have been drastically reduced and a compulsory pass is not even required in our school exams. So how serious can we be about uplifting the standard of English in this country? Worse, many teachers who are teaching English in schools are themselves not fluent in the language. It’s truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

Just yesterday, a retired civil servant, Dr Pola Singh, wrote that in the course of going through the application forms for jobs meant for graduates, he came across numerous instances of local graduates listing down that they have an “honest” degree when they meant an honours degree.

Honest to goodness, this is no laughing matter.