Libby Purves, writing in the Sunday Times, touches on something that has concerned The GOS himself - see here …
I must apologise to fellow passengers on the 0731 from Newton Abbot. I may have snorted. I know I laughed, out loud and suddenly, in the dozing carriage. This outburst of joy was occasioned by the report of a Welsh road sign near an Asda. It said: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only."
At least, that is what it says in English. The compulsory Welsh translation underneath, following an e-mail query to the local authority's in-house translation service, actually says: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated." Which is "Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith l'w gyfieithu". Obviously, it should have said "Na chofnodiad achos 'n drwm da vehicles. residential safle ond".
Or should it? I got that translation of the correct message from an internet translation service, but when I fed it back in the other way round, it emerged as "I do entry because heartburn drum good vehicles. residential position except". So I then reversed the translation of the actual Welsh out-of-office message, and that returned "Bit I am being crookedly in the office at this time..." You can see why the council needs in-house translators. Even if they are so piously, humourlessly Welsh-speaking that they don't put their out-of-office responses into both languages.
But it was not the mere Hoffnung phrasebook joke which slew me. I saw with beautiful clarity the implications of what happened. Plainly, nobody in the traffic department that commissioned the sign spoke any Welsh (or they would have wondered why the second sentence was an incongruous length and lacked familiar words). Nor did anybody, at any stage of the proofing and manufacturing process involving non-retroreflective glass bead technology, aluminium sheeting and BS 873 standard lettering compliant with Highways Sector Scheme 9A, raise a query. Nobody: not a word of Welsh between them. And more importantly, not a flicker of curiosity.
And don't tell me the sign was made by ignorant English people, because there are at least three Welsh firms that make road signs. I cannot believe that a Welsh council would send work elsewhere. Basically, nobody gave a damn, including the workmen who put it up. The first to spot it were readers of a Welsh-language magazine, the editor of which sorrowfully says it is not a first. Cyclists between Cardiff and Penarth were baffled by a sign, the Welsh text of which warned of "an inflamed bladder". A pedestrian sign in Cardiff briefly said "look right" in English and "look left" in Welsh. A school in Wrexham had "staff" translated as "wooden staves". In all these cases, great chains of personnel must have let it all through.
Look, I have nothing against efforts to preserve the Welsh language. It is beautiful, heartstoppingly so when spoken mellifluously by my friend Mari, or recited as poetry. I applaud its being taught in Welsh schools (though the results seem dubious, given this debacle). And if the Welsh Assembly feels strongly that signs should be in both languages, even if nobody actually needs them to be, I defend their democratically endorsed decision to the last bewildering consonant. Anyway, as a visitor I rather like having the Service area beyond the Severn Bridge announce itself as a Gwasanaethau, and often make spirited attempts to pronounce it. It adds exoticism to a long journey.
No: the real hilarity of the road sign affair is that it is so beautifully typical of modern life in an overmanaged, system-crazy, authoritarian society where regulation and routine either deaden common sense and initiative, or frighten it into silence. On the same train where I spluttered helplessly over the Welsh sign, the usual announcement kept telling passengers not to leave any luggage unattended "at any time". Passengers heading for the lavatory or the buffet, however, were not hefting giant half-term suitcases and rucksacks, nor did anyone expect them to. Another safety-conscious announcement warned us to remain in our seats until the train came to a complete halt at Paddington. But if passengers getting off at Slough took this "safety" advice they would never all make it to the door with their baggage before the train shot off again.
Look wider: it is all around you, this robotic senselessness. A village playgroup may not employ a granny well known to everybody these 50 years until she has waited weeks for a formulaic, expensive vetting certificate from the lumbering machinery of Capita's Criminal Records Bureau. Even so, if she then wants to help the Sea Scouts with their dinghies she'll need a whole new check. A small-town bank manager who has known a pensioner for 30 years still has to put him through cumbersome "anti-money-laundering" procedures to open an ISA. Doorkeepers in office buildings who have seen staff members a hundred times must make them wait for an escort if their ID card fails to bleep.
Elsewhere, a Marks & Spencer staff member refuses to speak to a small child's mother about a faulty Superman outfit because "data protection law" insists they deal with the owner. A pair of evangelists get warned off by a Community Support Officer because Christianity constitutes "hate crime in a Muslim area". A builder gets fined £30 for smoking in his own private van. In those last three cases, jobsworths actually got the law wrong. But so cowed and confused do you get when you work in a huge unwieldy system, so used to not being trusted to blow your own nose without "guidelines", that these things are bound to happen. Thus somebody in a Welsh transport department thinks: "It has to be in Welsh, that stuff looks like Welsh, OK, it doesn't look as if it's about lorries, but better not query it."
It is all about the fear of stepping out of the groove, making an independent decision or asking an intelligent question. People are not naturally like that. It is fiddly systems and unimaginative management that make them that way. So employees, strike out! Ask questions beginning with "why?" at least once a day. Point out that, even if the emperor does have clothes, they're on inside out.
Incidentally, the Welsh for "the emperor has no clothes" is "r hymerawdwr has na ddillad". Only, when I reversed that again, it came out as "Group emperor ace I do garments". See? You can't trust everything that comes out of your computer. Or your rule book.
The GOS says: Much as I agree, and much as I enjoy your writing, Libby, I'm afraid I have to point out one major flaw in your argument.
Who in their right mind would expect to get any sense out of an online translator? I mean, come on … the damn things were invented by Americans, weren't they? And they can't even speak their own language, let alone translate anyone else's …
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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