It’s probably churlish to the n-th degree to moan about the general standard of public Welsh on the very day Big Brother speaks nothing else. But far be it from me to pass up an opportunity to point and laugh at roadsigns.
So, the story: the Vale of Glamorgan council put up a road sign saying ‘Cyclists Dismount’ in English, but, bafflingly, the Welsh below it says ‘Cystitis Overturn’. Which, as Dave Barry might say, is a good name for a band.
Yes, this is funny, granted. Amusing enough to make it the most emailed story from the BBC News website at one point today. As to how the warning about bladder infection appeared on the road sign, one explanation is that ‘cyclist’ might have appeared next to ‘cystitis’ in an online dictionary. It must have been a very small dictionary.
We can laugh. And we do. But this is an isolated incident, surely? In normal circumstances, no-one without a grasp of the sense of a language would dare claim to be able to translate into it? If only. There is, you won’t be surprised to know, a Flickr pool solely dedicated to mad, bad Welsh found on public signs. Not private documents, not, for the most part, newspapers and magazines. Just in public.
It contains 146 photos.
Most of these, it’s true, can be explained by a signwriter not really paying attention. Many can be explained by an amateur translator not really paying attention (go to the World Music section in the Cardiff Virgin Megastore, and the Welsh sign will greet you with ‘Wordy Music’). Some of the blunders are of the Eats, Shoots and Leaves level of pedantry (which I support, in whatever language).
Some, though, are jawdropping to a cystitis-overturning level. Take, for instance, a simple, innocuous sign about raised manhole covers. Manhole? Well that’s easy to translate. Just take ‘man’ and ‘hole’, look them up in a Welsh dictionary, reverse the order because Welsh is that sort of language, and there you go. The trouble is that if you do that, your resulting sign contains an instruction to watch out for covers of the sort of holes that all men have, certainly, but that they’d probably be arrested for raising in public. Think that sign would never make it pass the proof reader? What proof reader?
There’s more, of course. Blasting in Progress becomes Workers Exploding. If you’re crossing the road, look right – or, if you speak Welsh, look left instead. There’s a severe drop onto the bus concourse – or, rather, a trenchant raindrop leads to this bus multitude.
The moral of the story? Translation is hard. Even if you’ve only got two words to translate, it’s not just a matter of having a bilingual dictionary, or even an online translation tool, and plugging a few words in and hoping you strike lucky. So, if you are a translator of whatever language, it seems you’ll be in clover for many, many years to come. Just make sure you don’t skimp on the proof-reading. And be careful around the manholes.