“An object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service”. That’s how the Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, described the centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system. (See also my previous post on Ministry of Justice language services). Headlines have included:

Court interpreter farce halts murder trial” and “MPs dismayed by ‘total chaos’ of £42m lost in translation”.

Translators and interpreters will not be the least bit surprised by these reports.

As a translator from Italian, I see painfully bad translations day in, day out, on Italian websites. Often the websites of prestigious public sector bodies.

Italian public sector translations: from bad to worse

Distinguished public figures – the Presidents and Chairmen and -women of Italian public sector organisations – are made to sound both pretentious and semi-literate in English.

Economics/statistics bodies publish wildly inaccurate information about Italy (the numbers are OK, but the English-language copy interpreting them is utterly wrong).

Regional tourism bodies invite visitors to sample the “peculiarities”, rather than the “unique features”, of their regions.

And with Italy’s public sector organisations awarding translation contracts based purely, or primarily, on lowest-price bids, this sort of garbage will only get worse. How could it be otherwise?

If Italy wants to be taken seriously on the international stage, it really should not be placing its international reputation in the hands of charlatans.

By Marian Dougan


4 Responses to “Omnishambles: object-lessons in how not to contract out language services”  

  1. 1 Nadine Touzet

    Italy is not the only example, unfortunately.

  2. 2 wordstogoodeffect

    Yes, I can imagine. If the clients only knew how bad they were made to look… In fact they sometimes do, but their accounts/budgeting departments get them tied in to these low-cost, even-lower-quality contracts that they find it hard to get out of.

  3. 3 Elisa

    You touched a sore spot Marian, and rightfully so. I am glad that professional translators speak out about this issue. As an Italian translator, I can only share your point – and feel equally sorry about it. Even more, because one would want to be proud of their own country.
    In fact, a public sector employee in a major Italian city recently told me: “We can’t afford to hire translators, so we use Google Translate or some employee who speaks a bit of English”. Ouch. Big “facepalm” moment.
    Anyway, we as professionals must play our part and don’t compromise on our rates, because they reflect what we offer (quality).

  4. 4 wordstogoodeffect

    Thanks for commenting, Elisa. I realise it’s a problem right now for the Italian public sector, because money really is tight. Here in the UK, my city’s tourism promotion office doesn’t even bother to translate its website – so it’s not just Italy. I find it annoying that when money is tight and should be spent wisely and, in the case of translation, be viewed as an investment, the big contracts are going to utter charlatans. So the public sector is simply throwing its money away.

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