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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.


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RV, since you mentioned “old timers”, and knowing that the government has policies targeting very specific groups, do you alter your translations according to the age of your audience?

RV: For materials meant for the younger generation we try to use simpler words. For example, “It is three-thirty in the afternoon.” Talking to an older person, you can say, “moondrarai”, which means “three and a half”, and they will understand. But the younger generation usually do not. So we have to say, “It’s moondru-mupathu.” “It’s three-thirty.” 

When the message is for people of all ages, we use a term that everyone understands. For example, the older generation calls Potong Pasir “Mannu Malai”, because there used to be a small hill that looks like sand from afar. “Mannu” means “sand” and “malai” means “mountain” or “hill”. But we don’t use that because the message has to be understood by everyone. 


Some of you tend to be older than your audiences, and some of you younger, so how do you attune yourself to the language of a different generation? 

RV: Very simple. Talk to people of all ages. 


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You also translate from mother tongue to English. How is it different?

RV: When I am translating from English to Tamil, I have to think culturally, as there are certain English words that may be offensive in Tamil when translated literally. One example is “older workers.” I have to say it differently, like “workers who are senior in age”. It’s easier translating from Tamil to English. I can say “older workers” without offending anyone.

Another good example is a line I came across in an exhibition. A girl says, “My tomatoes are not growing well.” If I were to translate that into Tamil, it would be very vulgar, as “tomatoes” is a euphemism for breasts in Tamil. Any Indian audience who reads that will laugh. These are the things you got to be very careful about. I told the copywriter to change the English version to “The tomatoes I planted are not growing well” instead.


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We realised translation may not always be the best approach to communication, but how do you decide when it is unnecessary? 


FH: We usually don’t translate brands or street names. So Bukit Panjang is “Bukit Panjang”, not “long hill”. We consider whether people can understand and if it makes sense. Don’t translate for the sake of translating!

YC: There’s an interesting reason for this. There are roads in Singapore which mean the same thing but are in different languages. For instance, Jalan Bukit Merah and Redhill Road, Buffalo Road and Kerbau Road, or Jalan Angin Laut and Sea Breeze Road. 

RV: Words that are joined together, like ActiveSG or SG Enable, we transliterate into Tamil. Same for MediShield Life. When people read out in Tamil, it sounds like “MediShield Life”. Because MediShield Life was going to be for all Singaporeans, they should understand it as how other Singaporeans do. 

YC: Usually the agency in charge already has an idea of how the Chinese names should be. For all three languages, we will consult the respective Resource Panels (RPs) of the National Translation Committee wherever necessary. The RPs comprise of academics, media professionals and public sector representatives. They help to act as a sounding board for the proposed translations, and will advise us if the name sounds good or if it’s too confusing. 


You each translate in respective languages, but do you also work with one another?

RV: For Tamil and Malay translators, we discuss quite a bit. People have wondered: “What are these two languages discussing, they don’t have anything in common.” But we have many things in common! Both our languages overlap in certain places. We tend to use similar words. “Dana” means fund in Malay, and “Dhanam” means money or wealth in Tamil. So sometimes when I’m not too sure what word to use, I’ll ask them how they will translate. I get ideas from them. 

FH: It’s actually a good practice. I’ll ask the other language groups how they are translating the same document to get a general idea for my own.

YC: It helps to compare notes, in terms of our understanding of the source. We need to make sure that we read the source text correctly. 


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Have you had any interesting experience as a translator?

RV: Yes. We translated the eulogies for Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It was very different from translating government documents. They were very emotional, especially since they were written for someone whom I look up to. I knew that Mr Lee was our first prime minister, he served for so many years, he came up with this, this, this... But when I was translating his eulogies, I started learning a lot about him, his personal life, his family, his wife. I was actually moved to tears!


What’s a typical day at work like?

YC: In the morning we translate news articles and commentaries for media monitoring, very typical of any public or private corporate communications department. This is where translation from mother tongue to English comes in. 

In the afternoon, we work on our assignments from the various ministries. Our senior colleagues will then vet our work. For example, if Fazli does a first cut translation, the head of the Malay section will check his work before it goes out. 

We also spend a lot of time on projects which are implemented under the National Translation Committee (NTC)’s auspices. These are mostly aimed at raising Whole-of-Government translation standards, or to raise awareness of translation among our community.


What are some of the projects you are working on?

FH: We’ve been building up the Government Terms Translated Portal (https://www.gov.sg/resources/translation), which contains our translations of about 5,000 commonly used government terms or initiatives. The public and media have been writing in to ask for the proper translations, now they can refer to the portal. 

YC: We have also started organising translation workshops for secondary school students, to promote awareness among students of the importance of quality translations, and translation as a career. Even if they don’t become a translator, they will at least understand what makes a good translation. So if they are ever asked to check someone’s translation, they will know how to assess too.


Since you are trying to promote translation as a career, how about you share with us what you enjoy about your job?

YC: The span of subjects we cover in the course of our work is unique. Translating a commentary on a complex policy, like MediShield Life for instance, forces you to read up on the policy, to get down to the nuts and bolts, so that you are able to thoroughly understand the argument put forth, and accurately present the commentator’s point of view in the target language.

RV: The beauty of transforming languages, the challenges it presents, and ultimately the knowledge gained.