One of the most important elements connecting Britain’s increasingly diverse communities is language. The bedrock of community cohesion is dialogue – words working to create stronger, safer and closer communities that feel more connected. Local authorities and public sector bodies play a crucial role in making this happen.
Essential community services – such as the police, fire services, the military, hospitals and GP practices – can work to create strong community networks through the way they communicate with local people.
Whether it is offering an Urdu-speaking GP, important fire safety information available in a range of languages, or multilingual speakers in council offices, language helps build networks between people from different backgrounds.
Key to all of it is trust and respect for local diversity. Get it right and relationships are strengthened. Get it wrong and it can work to build barriers and make people feel isolated.
A useful example of the pitfalls of getting it wrong cropped up this week.
Police in Leicester apologised for issuing a poorly-translated safety leaflet for Diwali, one of the most important Indian festivals, that Punjabi speakers in the city were left struggling to understand.
The force had teamed up with the fire service, Leicester City Council and Crimestoppers, the community crime-fighting body, to produce 12,000 special cards featuring tips and advice to help people enjoy the Festival of Lights safely. But a translation of the advice was described as “incomprehensible” by Punjabi speakers, who said it contained grammatical mistakes and nonsense sentences.
‘Embarrassing but serious’
Professor Shingara Dhillon, who lives in Leicester’s Rushey Mead area and is a member of the Panjabi Arts, Cultural and Literary Council UK, was one of the thousands of people who received the card through their letterbox.
Speaking to the Leicester Mercury, Professor Dhillon said: “It is a good idea to translate this information because there are 36,000 Punjabi speakers in Leicester.
“However, they have just done an awful job of it. It’s not in proper Punjabi language. Lots of people have come to me and say they can’t understand it.
“It looks like it has been done in a huge rush. It is very bad because the safety information is very important.
“It’s very embarrassing but also serious.”
A spokeswoman for Leicester Police admitted the translation, which was provided by an unnamed external company, was of “poor quality”.
“The leaflet was produced with good intention and we sincerely apologise for any upset or offence this may have caused,” she said.
“We will ensure that no further copies of the translation are distributed and will take the matter up with the company which provided the translation.”
No more copies of the translated advice will be distributed ahead of Diwali, which starts on Sunday.
Importance of accurate translation
In a diverse city such as Leicester, accurate translation for community documents would seem essential. Not only, in this specific case, for delivering safety information, but also for community cohesion in general.
The issue highlights how important it is that organisations involved with communities ensure they have effective policies in place to deliver information properly. The case in Leicester might seem a small issue, but issues like this can prove to be sources of conflict and tension.
If public bodies outsource their translation to a third party, it is crucial that they research the company and engage with them to make sure they can deliver an accurate product, so that we speak through a common language.