Speaking to a country with four official languages requires the work of highly skilled translators who can convey not just words but ideas of the government. In order to do that, these translators need to be proficient in both language and culture. A chat with three officers from the Ministry of Communications and Information’s (MCI) Translation Department—Koh Yeow Chua (YC), Muhammad Fazli Hamdan (FH) and Rajan s/o Vellu (RV)—reveals how communication across different languages takes good sense, apart from good words.
Tell us more about your work. Where can the public see them?
YC: What the public sees the most are the collaterals for government policies. For instance, the Ministry of Finance’s Budget-in-Brief sent out to all households earlier in the year. Another example was during last year’s SG50 celebrations, when we translated many of the print and television advertisements. We also worked on the Jubilee Walk, translating the write-ups of the 25 markers set at the landmarks along the route, which involved a great deal of research.
RV: Some more recent work you might have seen is the television advertisements for the Silver Support Scheme. We translated the English tagline: “Things we take for granted can mean everything to others” into our respective languages. For other government advertisements, we have translated subtitles and even the script itself.
FH: Another recent project we worked on was a campaign to encourage Singaporeans to plan their retirement, featuring a bird, a hermit crab, a rabbit and a squirrel. We had to research and imagine ourselves as these animals to come up with the appropriate words, otherwise they might sound too “human”.
What led you to becoming a translator?
YC: My very first job was as a news producer at MediaCorp‘s Mandarin channel. We often had to translate foreign news that came through in English from newswires like Reuters and Associated Press. After that, I joined the civil service and took up a few postings, where I was often asked to do translations. One day, I thought: Why don’t I do this as my core job? So here I am, since March 2014.
RV: My passion for Tamil started since I was a small boy. Because I’m from a joint family, I grew up with my grandparents and they always speak Tamil at home. During national service, I served as an interpreter in the courts-martial. Then I went on to become a teacher for nearly 10 years. I switched over to this ministry as a translator, and I’ve been here for about eight years.
FH: I like the Malay language. When I was in school, some of my classmates found it difficult, but it was like second nature to me. After taking a translation module in university, I became interested in the field. When I was an intern at the National Heritage Board, I was given the chance to do some translation work. Then there was an opening here. I applied, passed the qualifying test and got in.
YC: There’s a three-hour written test as part of the application be a translator at MCI. You are tested on translating English to your mother tongue and vice versa. Everyone comes out of it with numb fingers, because you are just hammering away on the keyboard for three hours!
We know that translation requires strong language skills. But what other qualities does a translator need to have?
YC: You need to be sensitive in your choice of words and the difference between the two languages. A question I always ask myself after translating a passage is if it sounds like something a Mandarin-speaking person would understand. It takes a while for a new translator to gain the confidence to be unshackled from the original text. A good translation must be accurate and loyal to the spirit of the original text even though its form may be different.
RV: It takes more than just being bilingually effective. What you take in English, you should be able to interpret and express in your own language. You don’t give a literal translation. Instead, you give an accurate interpretation of how you will express it in your own language. Take Botanic Gardens for example. We don’t do a direct translation. We call it “poomalai”, which means “flower mountain” or “flower hill”. The old-timers call it that, and that’s what we still teach in textbooks today.
FH: It’s the same for Malay. We call the Botanic Gardens “Kebun Bunga”. It means “flower garden”. Another example is the phrase, “To kill two birds with one stone”. We use the Malay proverb “Sambil menyelam minum air”, which means “drink while you dive”. It expresses the same meaning, but in our own way.