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Lost in translation

Today (29) marks International Translation Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the act of bridging different communities that communicate in different languages, through translation.

The translation of ideas and knowledge, not mere words, is a huge responsibility, and the changes it can make are massive. At present, Sri Lanka is struggling to deal with intensifying pressure on the country caused by the exacerbating economic crisis and the long drawn-out national ethnic conflict, and therefore, the country is at a juncture where it desperately needs the proper conveyance of ideas and knowledge.

However, most of the time, the knowledge the public receives is limited to what politicians and authorities want them to know and what the local media says, and the public’s knowledge and understanding of the issues that affect them is incomplete and therefore likely to be misleading.

For instance, even though the country is trapped in the midst of an economic crisis that is too big to even imagine, what the public knows is limited to foreign loans, import restrictions, and increase in the prices of consumer goods, as this is what most local media outlets highlight. Even though certain foreign and local media outlets publish unadulterated information as to what causes the economic hardships faced by ordinary consumers, those reports do not get translated adequately into a semblance of proper understanding of the issues.

How many ordinary people who have no background in economics are aware of what is happening to our foreign reserves, exports, imports, inflation, and depreciation of the Rupee, which have a considerable impact on what they are experiencing on a daily basis at their local grocery?

That is not all. The people are not adequately informed about what is happening in other countries, which leaves them unable to assess the country’s economic situation properly to make proper judgments.

The Government has a huge responsibility to ensure that the English-language (the country’s link language) economic jargon they use is translated into what the public can comprehend, and doing so essentially facilitates the people’s right to information.

The social impact the lack of proper translation has caused can be seen in the discussion of the national ethnic conflict. Even though multilingual approaches are what the politicians advocate for, in order to strengthen inter-ethnic relationships, we do not even see the proper management of the two languages.

When a Sinhala language publication gets translated into Tamil or vice versa, the translation is expected to convey emotions, due to the sensitivity of the relationship between the people who speak the two languages. However, there are many occasions when publications, especially those published by public institutions, get translated inaccurately or incompletely, or do not get translated into both local languages.

This has happened in the Parliament as well. Recently, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran slammed the Parliament for the practice of issuing Sinhala-language letters to Tamil-speaking MPs and circulars for certain Parliament employees. Precisely, the same concern has been raised about single-language applications issued by certain public institutions.

If Sri Lanka cannot show Constitutionally-guaranteed equality for the two national languages (Sinhala and Tamil) even in its main lawmaking institution, it raises an alarming concern about how serious we are about establishing reconciliation. Also, it is likely to make ethnic minority communities feel further alienated and discriminated against, and makes them distance themselves from the reconciliation process.

Sri Lanka has only two national languages, unlike our neighbour India that has over 100 major languages. The failure to manage just two languages, when it is of national importance, is not a justifiable inadequacy, and more attention needs to be paid to it.