No Mandate to Translate

by Translation Guy on March 20, 2013

Translation is a waste of money and it’s bad for UK immigrants.  So says Eric Pickles, Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in Britain.  Pickles believes that the translation services provided by local government have an unintentional negative impact on the non-English speakers who live there.

“This is putting people, particularly migrants, at a disadvantage because speaking English is fundamental to the ability to progress in British society and to contribute to the wider economy.”

Learning English is the answer, says Pickles. “The Government is committed to helping people learn English which helps to promote cohesion and better community relations.”

Public sector spending on translation in the UK costs over $200 million annually, and the high costs associated with translation are a frequent target of government critics in the British press. According to census figures, about 4 million UK residents, or just under 8% of the population, do not speak English as their first language, but only 0.3% can’t speak English at all.

Pickles argues that local governments have misinterpreted British anti-discrimination law as a mandate to translate, when in fact they have no legal obligation to translate at all.

Examples of translation excess cited by Pickles include the Crawley Borough Council which spent one thousand dollars publishing its glossy 12-page quarterly Homelink lifestyle magazine into Urdu after a single resident complained he could not read English, and the Southwark Council which translates information about its services into over 70 languages by default.

The view from the ground is different, at least in Southwark, where the Council has denied Pickles’ accusations of translation extravagance. Councillor Richard Livingstone reports that translation costs have been cut almost in half in the last two years, and information is translated not by default but only on request. “If a social worker needs to communicate with a mother over the safety of her child, that social worker can’t say ‘go away and learn English and I’ll come back in six months.’ That issue needs to be dealt with immediately, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t find a way to communicate with that parent.”

Minister Pickles takes the bird’s-eye view.  He contends, “Even if publishing only in English could put some people at a particular disadvantage, such a policy may be justified if local authorities can demonstrate that the integration and cost concerns pursue a legitimate aim and outweigh any disadvantage.”  Rather than translating for those not fluent in English, Pickles proposes keeping government English plain and easy to read, with plenty of pictures.

So a question for all you translators out there. When is enough translation too much?


  1. Jenks says:

    I once had an emergency appendectomy in Brazil, so I had to learn the lingo under the knife. Good thing I had packed my language tapes! I’ll be ready if they ever have to remove my appendix again.

  2. Pickles is mentally disabled. Everyone knows…
    And he is pathologically jealous about the worldwide expansion of Spanish as lingua franca replacing british english in fact.

  3. I do think translating into over 70 languages could be considered a little bit of overkill for a single county, if the statistics on English as a first language are accurate.

  4. Kelly says:

    Pickles is widely considered something of an idiot over here, so I wouldn’t worry too much.

  5. I can certainly see the point of view about government waste, but as the other gentleman said, sometimes communication is a vital public safety issue.

  6. Margaret says:

    Those figures, the 8% of the population that don’t speak English as a first language seem ridiculously low, having lived in London for years.

  7. I’m not sure I’m understanding the Southwark issue, do they publish in over 70 languages or provide interpreters for social workers to communicate with people?

  8. Randy Selzer says:

    The idea of infographics and plain English does have a certain appeal, pictoral communication has been shown to be very effective and would cut down on cost.

    • Ken says:

      It would help to increase comprehension for native speakers too. I rely on hand puppets, or I guess I should say my staff relies on hand puppets during their briefs.

  9. Eva Skoglund says:

    The wikipedia link says that the equality act was done in 2010, was Britain really without anti-discrimination laws for so long? That seems a little ridiculous.

  10. 1000 pounds on an Urdu magazine for one man does seem slightly extravagent.

  11. Mike Cortson says:

    My god, that picture and the name Pickles just means I can’t take the guy seriously.

    • Ken says:

      My editor put that up, and I thought it was a little unfair. None of that Chris Christie impishness, I guess.

  12. Pretty much anything not considered vital and costing large amounts of money these days in Britin is under attack by the Tories.

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