Public bodies get lost in translation

24 Nov 2004

In April of 2001 Judge Adrian Hardiman defended the necessity for the promotion and preservation of the Irish language in the role of State business.

In a Supreme Court ruling he said: “In my view the Irish language, which is the national language and at the same time the first official language of the State, cannot be excluded from any part of the public discourse of the nation or the official business of the State or any of its emanations. Nor can it be treated less favourably in these contexts that the second official language. Nor can those who are competent and desirous of using it as a means of expression or communication be precluded from or disadvantaged in so doing in any national or official context.”

Hardiman’s ruling set the context for the Official Languages Act, 2003. It gives legislative effect to the delivery of public services in Irish and English and enshrines the Irish language as the national language and, therefore, first official language of the State.

Implementation of this Act, however, is creating a major technological and administrative headache for public bodies that have embraced the information-delivery potential of the web, resulting in every single document being replicated in Irish. Eventually this will transcend not only the web but various communications, ranging from email to interactive voice response and even text messages and mobile portals.

Since the Act’s publication some 650 public bodies — ranging from government departments to county councils and semi-state organisations — will have to set about translating all publications and public information in print and online within a three-year timescale. Effectively, that leaves them with less than a year and a half at this stage to complete the task.

Monitoring the Act’s implementation is understood to be the responsibility of recently appointed language commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin, deputy head of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.

While there is no argument that the Government’s motivation to ensure that every document communicated by Irish public bodies is available in Irish as well as English is both noble and integral to the survival of the language, there is a growing divide in public bodies over implementation of the scheme, with certain sectors describing it as too ambitious, too onerous and too expensive. In fact, it can be argued that some public bodies are taking to the task with the same lack of enthusiasm as a Leaving Cert student being forced to cram on Peig.

In recent weeks there was a storm of controversy when a weekend newspaper reported that it will cost the State up to €150m a year to translate official documents into Irish and would require the Government recruiting some 2,000 more Irish speakers to translate documents. Eamon Ó Cuív TD, the Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs, dismissed these claims as both a “nonsense” and a “work of fiction”. It is clear, however, that more work needs to be done to allay the fears of local councils, especially where a self-perpetuating beast such as the internet is concerned.

Effectively, going forward, every document produced will have to be done in both languages, ranging from an information notice to a press release. Earlier this year, local authorities in non-Gaeltacht areas expressed reservations about printing and translation costs and argued that no funding had been set aside for translation, an outrage, they said, when you consider that county councils can expect to fork out costs of between €100 and €150 per thousand words.

According to a document on — the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs’ site — under Guidelines for preparation of a scheme there are templates and source documents available for standard products such as statements of strategy, annual business plans, reference manuals, annual reports and accounts, customer service action plans and customer charters and information brochures.

As well as this, it became public knowledge during the summer that Microsoft has launched an Irish Local Language Programme that will translate Windows XP and Office 2003 into Irish as part of a link-up with Foras na Gaeilge, a cross-border Irish language development agency, and the universities of Ulster, Limerick and Maynooth for the project. A glossary website for Irish has been set up under the scheme.

Foras na Gaeilge has pre-translated technical terms in Irish from its Dictionary of Computing and IT and has invited Irish speakers to comment on and contribute to them at: The final glossary will be used as a translation resource and as a reference work.

A Dublin company called Sanas is bidding for significant tracts of business from the public sector and employs 10 translators working for various semi-state, government department and local authority bodies such as the Cork Regional Development Board. Sanas’ managing director, Maeve Kneafsey (pictured), whose sister company Elucidate also targets web strategy opportunities in the public and private sector, explains: “Right now, many of the 650 public bodies in this country should be halfway through the translation process, but we are seeing varying degrees of preparedness and progress.”

Sanas has created both a technology and methodology that allows public sector sites to translate content at the same time as they update their website. “We basically do end-to-end translation. While there are software tools that can remember specific terms in Irish, you can never take the human element out of translation. Translating an annual report is very different to translating a press release.

“Government bodies will have to prepare for scale in their translation plans. Effectively, they are not just getting existing documentation up to date but will have to manage this as an ongoing process and I’m not sure the implications of this have sunken in yet.”

She added: “Quality is another important issue — every translated document will have to be proofed and edited. While there is a lot of uncertainty out there about it there are quite a lot of people taking this seriously as it will pervade all future Government communications on the internet, advertising copy and even mobile and voice-based services.

“Six months ago a lot of people in the public sector were concerned about the parameters and breadth of the move, but since then there has been a lot of information put out about tackling it as a strategy. The important point is that government bodies tackle it now and give themselves time to get it right,” Kneafsey concluded.

By John Kennedy