Sri Lanka Translation Blunders Hit a Nerve

Sri Lanka Translation Blunders Hit a Nerve

In the past, language has been a flashpoint between groups in Sri Lanka

As translation errors go, a mistake recently pointed out to the Sri Lankan government by the country’s angered Tamil community is a humdinger.

The blunder occurred on a sign that offered translations in Sinhala (the mother tongue of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group), English and Tamil – the language of the island’s minority group of the same name.

In English and Sinhala (also known as Sinhalese) the sign read: “Reserved for pregnant mothers”. However, a mistake in the translation into Tamil left it saying “Reserved for pregnant dogs”.

It was quickly pointed out by those responsible that this was purely an error on the part of the translators, and not an intended slur on the Tamil people.

But it comes at a time when tensions remain taut between the nation’s government and the Tamil community. The defeat of the Tigers of Tamil Ealam (also known as the Tamil Tigers) by government forces in 2009 brought to an end a conflict that had raged for over 26 years, with sections of the international community labelling the Tigers ‘terrorists’ at the same time as other groups around the world pointed out alleged human rights violations on the part of the government.


The latest translation error is one of many recently highlighted by local media. Some Tamils complain that mistakes can often be seen in the translations of their language, saying interacting with government institutions can be difficult as there is not always someone on hand who speaks Tamil fluently.

Local Tamil rights activist, S Balakrishnan, told the BBC: “Tamils find language errors in name boards on buses, streets and many government official buildings.”

Talking to BBC Tamil, minister for national languages and social integration, Vasudeva Nanayakara, admitted that the mistakes were down to translations being undertaken by people not fluent in Tamil.

“Sometimes, also translations into Sinhala in mainly Tamil areas are wrong, as there are not enough Tamil people in those areas fluent in Sinhala,” he said.

Historic tensions

It is not just the recent conflict that makes the issue a sensitive one. The question of language has been at the heart of the troubles in Sri Lanka. A move by the government in 1956 to replace English with Sinhala as the country’s official language sparked much unrest.

The Tamil language did not receive official status, meaning many Tamil speakers lost government positions because they were not proficient enough in Sinhala. The situation was eventually addressed, but not before it had led to much resentment within the Tamil community.

The marginalization of the Tamil speakers contributed to tensions that finally erupted in civil war in the early 1980s.


According to Vasudeva Nanayakara, the country is now moving towards becoming a trilingual nation, with English given the same status as the currently official languages of Sinhala and Tamil.

The aim of the 10-year strategy will be to have all signs and official material printed in the three languages.

The government has called for Tamil speakers to flag up any mistakes they see in translations and report them to the relevant authorities.

Tamil activists have said that this is not good enough and have called for the appointment of an official body to oversee translations and make sure any mistakes are corrected immediately.

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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