In Singapore we have four official languages - Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English. The work of translation is more than just finding the right words in one language and rendering it to another; it also needs to more importantly appropriately carry the ideas behind them. In order to do so, these translators need to be proficient in both language and culture. We had 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 Fathima Maryam Kamaludin (FM) to find out how communication across different languages takes good sense, apart from good words.
Officers from Ministry of Communications and Information’s (MCI) Translation Department.
From left: Mr Koh Yeow Chua, Ms Fathima Maryam Kamaludin and Mr Muhammad Fazli Hamdan.
Tell us more about your work. Where can the public see them?
FM: As we all know, one of the most significant events in 2019 is the Singapore Bicentennial. Every one of us are bound to come across banners, brochures, posters, ads etc on Bicentennial this year. And I am proud to say some of these works have been translated by us. An example would be the plaques for the four new statues along the Singapore River.
Credit: Hong Hai Environmental Arts
FH: Another project we worked on was for the Merdeka Generation Package (MGP). We had to research and find out how it was like living back in the olden days to tailor how we do our translations to better suit our seniors of the Merdeka Generation. How do we do it? We had to ask our senior colleagues and also our parents, who are part of the Merdeka Generation!
YC: What the public sees the most are the collaterals for government policies. Aside from the MGP, you would see our work in Government notices in four languages, such as notification letters for the GST Voucher, and brochures for the Digital TV switch-over in late 2018. And speaking of TV, you may have noticed a series of ads featuring a female kungfu practitioner literally swatting away excessive sugar from food, or animals of the Chinese zodiac sharing their special moves when it comes to financial planning – our colleagues had a hand in those as well.
What led you to becoming a translator?
YC: My 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 I joined the civil service and 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.
Mr Koh Yeow Chua, Senior Assistant Director, Translation Department, MCI.
FM: I guess I have always been passionate about language, which was why my ambition was to be a newscaster since I was young. I must say I was very lucky as I had the opportunity to achieve that dream. I started my career in Mediacorp’s Tamil radio station ‘Oli 96.8’. I also read the Tamil news on Vasantham. After being a news producer for six years, I decided to join the Civil Service. I wanted to do something related to language as well, and so I joined the Translation Department.
Ms Fathima Maryam Kamaludin, Assistant Manager, Translation Department, MCI.
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.
Mr Muhammad Fazli Hamdan, Senior Manager, Translation Department, MCI.
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.
FM: Being a translator is not just about being bilingual. You need a specific set of skills to be able to interpret a message suitably, according to its purpose and target audience. I feel that as a translator, one of the important qualities you should have is to deliver the translations in a simple yet accurate manner. Our target audience is our priority. The simpler the translation, the easier it is for the audience to understand.
FH: If I could add, a little knowledge of history helps. Botanic Gardens has always been known as “Kebun Bunga” in Malay. It means “flower garden”. I guess, if someone without some knowledge on this will definitely take the literal translation approach. We also need to have knowledge on how to translate certain phrases or proverbs. An 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.
How do you determine which approach to adopt in translation?
FH: We consider whether people can understand and if it makes sense. For example, we usually don’t translate brands or street names. So Bukit Panjang is “Bukit Panjang”, not “long hill”. 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.
FM: The same goes for some of the train station names. We usually transliterate most of the station names as it might not sound right when translated. Examples would be Springleaf, Queenstown etc.
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 (NTC) 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 is appropriate or if it’s too confusing.
You each translate in respective languages, but do you also work with one another?
FM: Yes, we do. Sometimes, we discuss about the way a particular phrase/word is interpreted. In that way, we can ensure that the content of our translations don’t differ.
FH: For me, 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 text. We need to make sure that we read the source text correctly.
Have you had any interesting experience as a translator?
FM: Yes. We don’t just translate. We also conduct events for students. As such, we have been organising translation workshops for students annually. Seeing the students getting excited learning about translation, their involvement and passion for language is really interesting. Besides just translating, being involved in such events as a translator makes my job even more fulfilling!
YC: Often, the really fascinating thing about translation is where the research work takes you. As Fathima mentioned earlier, we are working on translations for the Singapore Bicentennial this year, and while working on one of the assignments, I ended up spending so much time reading about history on the Majapahit empire, Admiral Cheng Ho’s links with Melaka and other little-known nuggets of history, I almost missed the deadline to send back our translation!
FH: A few months after I joined this service, I was tasked to translate eulogies for the State Funeral for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It was something new for me at that point and definitely one that I will never forget.
What’s a typical day at work like?
YC: In the morning we read and translate news articles and commentaries, 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 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 more than 10,000 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 and junior college students, to promote awareness among students of the importance of quality translations, and translation as a career. To make it “real” for the students, we work with industry partners, such as radio presenters, to share aspects of their work with the students. “Seeing” the voices in the radio before them and hearing how they translate local and foreign news reports in the course of their work helps the students realise the big role that translation plays in our daily lives. We also fund ground-up events that help to raise awareness on translation, some of which are translation-related competitions for students. It is important to start them young. Even if they don’t become translators in future, 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.
“It’s a wrap!” Over 120 Secondary 3 students had fun with theatre translation and gained
useful tips from veteran theatre practitioner Lim Hai Yen (May 2018).
Students actively participating in a quiz during the Malay Translation Workshop
organised for Junior College students (May 2018).
FM: As part of the Community- in- Translation initiative, we also conduct outreach sessions on our MCI Information Service Translation Scholarship in various schools. Our Ministry offers scholarships to students with a passion for government communications work. We hope students can look forward to a rewarding and challenging career!
Do you know that MCI translation officers also do video subtitling? At a MCI Information
Service (Translation) Scholarship outreach event, students watched with interest
a government campaign video on fighting diabetes produced during Deepavali.
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.
FM: I would often joke to my colleagues telling them that we can actually consider ourselves as “lawyers”, “doctors”, “dentists” etc. That’s how the job of a translator is. For example, if we are required to translate medical terms or law terms, we need to research thoroughly and understand what it is all about before we can even translate them. At the end of the day, we feel like we have learnt so much in relation to that particular industry. And that’s what I love about my job. The job of a translator is really rewarding and intellectually exciting.
FH: The satisfaction that you get when you see your work everywhere in Singapore. Makes you feel everything that you did to complete the job was worth every effort!
Nurturing the next generation of translation talents for Singapore
MCI Translation Department is the secretariat supporting the NTC which was formed in 2014 to oversee short-term and long-term plans to enhance whole-of-government translation capabilities, and see to improvements across the industry. One of NTC’s roles is nurturing the next generation of translation talents for Singapore.
The Information Service (Translation) Scholarship was introduced with the aim of identifying and grooming young Singaporeans who have a passion in government communications work and a strong interest in translation. More information is available here.
The Translation Talent Development Scheme (TTDS) is a co-sponsorship grant that supports Singaporean translation and interpretation practitioners from the private sector to further develop their capabilities and attain mastery of their skills. Application for this year’s TTDS is now open. For more information, visit www.mci.gov.sg/ttds.