Omnishambles: object-lessons in how not to contract out language services

“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

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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    1. 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.

  1. 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).

    1. 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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