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?