Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lost In Translation?

Poor govt communication

Several months ago, I, along with two of my colleagues, had the pleasure of eating out with our old English professor. Time had taken a leap, and over twenty years had elapsed since my last meeting with the teacher. We ordered our choices of food and talked about those old days, becoming nostalgic of that cleaner, unclogged Kathmandu that required no anti-pollution masks or overwhelmed us with these notorious traffic bottlenecks.

We covered topics in literature, poetry, philosophy, and communication and our casual conversation soon shifted to current education system that the professor believed had become so much commercialized; more show than substance, more form than details.

Near the cashier’s counter inside the restaurant at Tripureshwor, on the faintly white plaster block wall, stood a warning sign, visually grabbing, in white letters on a bright red background: “Take Care Yours Goods In Your Own Risk”.

We laughed, without giving much thought to its socio-linguistics implications, although upon my return home, images of funny and often textually erroneous graffiti slogans in our public vehicles and buses and my efforts to locate typos and errors in school textbooks flashed across my mind. Many of us who have kids attending schools are familiar with the poorly written lessons, offering enough examples of butchered grammar or syntax and missing or misplaced punctuations.

These offer me an opportunity to play word games, put effectively into practice by working with my kids, endlessly forming new terms, starting with the last letter of successive previous words, for places, things, activities or attributes.

Occasionally, you may like to verify the teacher’s corrections in your child’s notebooks, errors in grammar or usage and other mechanics of writing. This can be a cause for a difficult parent-child situation. For however sloppy their teacher may be, children normally consider her unerring, invincible!

The warning from the Tripureshwor restaurant, in a peculiar twist, epitomizes our sloppy habits and complacency in language use in public space. It is as if it read: Take Care Yours Language in Your Own Risk!

With increasing literacy and formal education in English in schools and colleges, the use of this acquired language is becoming more common these days. However, despite the ease offered by teaching tools and technologies, simple but important principles of technical communication, such as accuracy and clarity, and mechanics like spelling and punctuation, continue to suffer, even in the well-organized or well-funded quarters such as the political parties, government bureaucracy or academia.

A glaring error on public display by a political party that I recall from years ago involved the Nepali Congress, then the leading party. Its website ( flashed a banner on its homepage, with the sub-heading: “Democacy Socialism Nationality” as its core values, with a missing “r” and the commas. Running the Wayback Machine online, you come to know that the error remained there for over five and half years until mid-2012, irritating perhaps millions of visitors.

The “About” page on CPN (UML) website ( from Feb 2001 has the term “mobilized” (US style) while in the same page it uses “polarise” (British), “polarization” (US), and “organised” (British). It was only in Feb 2008, that the word “polarised” metamorphosed into “polarized” and “organised” into “organized”, clearly indicating that the UML was finally beginning to be fond of US style!

Are the Maoists an exception? The minimalist homepage of CPN (Maoist) website ( from February 2003 doesn’t disappoint its visitors. The header “Longlive” strikes your eyes.

Now to the government. Recently, browsing the net, I chanced upon the “Certificate of Mountaineering”, an inestimable letter of credence we offer to the whole wide world, to the many new Tenzings and Hillarys. Notice one glaring error in verb, a sure reason for poor grades in primary schools, or rebuke by teachers: “This certificate is hereby provided to Mr./Mrs. [space] a resident of [space] having successfully climb the [space] mountain having the height of [space] in the leadership of [space] as a [space] of the [space] mountaineering expedition team on the year of [space] month [space] day (A.D).”

Now how about reading the “Bulletein” (from November 2012) and “FAQ’s” (currently) from the Election Commission, Nepal website ( Hey, kids are told never to use an apostrophe to indicate plural.

The Department of Information (DoI) website ( has Khil Raj Regmi as our “Chairman Council of Ministers”. Somebody, please help teach commas. And how about explaining to the staff there that when you have more than one employee awarded for exemplary (Best) services, they should be referred as “Best Employees”, not “Best Employee”. Also, what happened to the idea of consistency and uniformity? Is it Singh Durbar or Singha Durbar or Singh[a]durbar?

The Ministry of Home Affairs (, another significant institution with a very high public visibility, describes its “Vision” thus: “Peace and Security in the Nation and homly service to citizens”. Homly? And what about the discrimination against certain words in the distribution of uppercases?

To cite some awkward examples, “communication” appears rather exaggerated at Ministry of Information and Communications website ( MoIC announces one of its mandates: “To make the communications media active so as to…” It is not clear what “making active” implies, although the original Nepali might make sense. And this reckless disregard for capitalizing a proper name in “To develop the press council as an independent…”!

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (, whose stated objective includes “To act as the country’s a first point of contact for the outside world” has the South Asia Division, among other Divisions. Now, look at this statement that reads like a subject-verb agreement test created for school kids: “The Divisions and Sections deals with the entire gamut of issues of bilateral interests between Nepal and the countries in the region”.

Academic and civil society institutions offer equally interesting flaws in technical communication. Here is one awkward construction from Tribhuvan University (, the country’s pre-eminent institution of learning from the opening paragraph in the “Introduction”: “There are thirty eight central departments and four research centres are located at Kirtipur. The university at Kirtipur is spread over an area of 154.77 hectares(3042-5-2 ropanis).”

Agreed; these are anecdotal examples, online. However, it is too easy to become complacent and dismiss these errors as accidental. But these are indicative of a much serious ailment, a downward spiral facilitated by increasing culture of copy-pasting and textspeak, not just in English but also in Devanagari. Bureaucratese is already hard to crack and absence of standardization further burdens citizens. Let’s not mention here the notoriously cumbersome official forms and documents that lack consistency, uniformity, and clarity, the attributes that are also at the heart of good public information instruments.

The fact that public institutions are run on taxpayers’ money, with paid staff to develop and oversee such instruments makes it even more imperative that our public information officials take their jobs seriously. If we are to become a truly literate and respectable society, there should be no excuse for such textual flaws, or lack of editing. Sometimes, as cases have shown elsewhere, a minor typo, especially concerning figures or numbers can cause a major havoc, even leading to the suspension or firing of the official in charge. It is about time the government devised (or revised) our technical communication approaches or methods in government, and developed clear guidelines and styles.

Time to go back to school, not for nostalgia of the old ways but to prepare for new challenges and informational bottlenecks. As for this article, it is technically a draft, until fully edited.

Published in Republica, June 19, 2013