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How bilingual professionals preserve local culture and context through translation

How bilingual professionals preserve local culture and context through translation

The “1942 Japanese Profession” (Japanese Occupation). The “stinging light” (stingray). The “water-carrying bullock cart” (Chinatown). These are some of the mistranslations that would cause confusion, ridicule or even outrage, if left uncorrected. 

Translation and interpretation practitioners like Ms Maria Bhavani Dass, Mr Haniman Boniran and Mr Seow Jie Ying use their language expertise and local knowledge to ensure that meanings of words and sentences are correctly rendered into another language. 

The importance of accurate translations is especially pertinent in multilingual and multiracial Singapore. These three practitioners share how they help different communities understand each other, and the value of translation in a multilingual world. 

Steward of culture and heritage

The favourite part of Ms Maria Bhavani Dass’ day is to walk around the bustling Campbell Lane in the heart of Little India, getting inspiration for the next event at the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), where she works as General Manager. “My mother tongue, Tamil, is a living language. I believe in appreciating the language through its culture and the arts.” 

Back in her office, Ms Dass spends her day vetting Tamil translations in the IHC and the other sister Heritage Centres, in exhibits, brochures and marketing materials. Her work also includes watching interviews of people sharing their stories and making sure the translations do justice to their emotional experiences.  

In addition, the 46-year-old is a Tamil Resource Panel member of the National Translation Committee (NTC), under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). With twenty years of experience in mother tongue education in the Ministry of Education (MOE), the veteran translator helps to share best practices to enhance translation works and capabilities. 

“Inculcating the love for our mother tongue in our young ones is a real challenge today,” Ms Dass says. “Watch a play, dance or musical performance! And read everything around you: posters and labels. And speak in your mother tongue to your friends and family, even just a few words a day.” 

Sharing knowledge of Singapore’s rich biodiversity 

One of the most common mistakes translators make is literal translation, word for word. For example, a stingray is not cahaya penyengat, shares Mr Haniman Boniran, who is a Senior Manager at the Life Sciences Department at Mandai Wildlife Group, where he has been working at for 13 years.

“In Malay, it is actually called ikan pari.” 

Mr Haniman’s knowledge of the natural world and the names used by local speakers has allowed him to translate zoological and scientific terms accurately.

“If we translate the pink-necked green pigeon literally from its English name, it will be a mouthful and inaccurate in Malay: burung merpati hijau berleher merah jambu’. As this species is native to the Malay archipelago, we use the local name: burung punai.”

Mr Haniman is currently pursuing a second degree in Malay language and literature at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). “I signed up for the Translation Talent Development Scheme (TTDS) offered by the NTC because it allowed me to grow my linguistic skills and contribute to the community,” he says. The scheme has helped defray the costs of his university studies.

In his course, Mr Haniman is learning new skills such as two-way translation and machine translation. “Machine translation is very helpful in translating large volumes of work and maintaining consistency in translation, but currently cannot capture the nuances of context and localisation,” says the 43-year-old. 

“There is still a need for the ‘heart ware’ to be present to ensure the context, nuances and emotions do not get lost in translation.”

The polyglot engineer  

Even though Mr Seow Jie Ying, 35, started out with a degree in bioengineering, his curiosity about the world and studying about other cultures eventually led him to pursue a career as a translator. “I had the opportunity to explore other areas of interest, such as Chinese and Japanese studies. It was in these classes that I met new people and began to feel that a future in translation was possible,” recalls Mr Seow. 

As a Localisation Engineer at a Norwegian chemicals company, he checks that accurate information is provided on the company’s mobile app and website in 13 languages. 

He also oversees a team of translators who translate English to a wide range of Southeast Asian, South Asian and African languages as the mobile app and website reach an international audience. “Being accurate and concise is important because we don’t want the translation to make misleading claims to customers.” 

As a TTDS recipient, Mr Seow honed his translation skills through a diploma course at the Confucius Institute at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which included a stint at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU). His studies exposed him to new translation tools like computer-assisted translation and machine translation. 

“The course seemed like a good fit for me as the content was very practical and applicable to my work. It also provided a good entryway into learning the basics of interpretation, which I had no experience in.”

About the Translation Talent Development Scheme

The Translation Talent Development Scheme (TTDS) is an initiative by the National Translation Committee (NTC) under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) to support Singaporean translation and interpretation (T&I) practitioners from the private sector in deepening their skills. Awarded recipients can receive up to S$10,000 to upskill. This can be used to offset 90 per cent of the expenses incurred in their participation of capability development programme(s) related to translation, interpretation and/or languages in Singapore and overseas. 

Applicants must have at least one year of combined experience in translation and/or interpretation in any of the following language pairs: English and Chinese, English and Malay, or English and Tamil. There are no restrictions on the applicant’s professional industry. Past recipients have hailed from industries such as education, media, design, IT, tourism, scientific research, video games development, publishing and law. 

Application details and more information are available at www.go.gov.sg/ttds.

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