Officials in Swansea, Wales, UK, emailed a translator, requesting a Welsh translation for a bilingual road sign that in English reads:
No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.
Unfortunately, the emailed response they got was:
Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu.
which apparently translates to ‘I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.’
Oops. (see also this example from Language Log)
The linguistic situation in Wales is fascinating due to a strong linguistic resurgence related to Welsh national identity. Although Welsh has never been an endangered language (certain parts of it have a majority of Welsh speakers), it is spoken to widely different degrees in different regions. But by regulation, all road signs in Wales are supposed to be bilingual, creating a huge market for translation. (This stands in direct contrast to my former home province of Quebec, where bilingual public signs are forbidden – they must be in French only). While Swansea is relatively anglophone (only 13% of the city’s inhabitants are fluent in Welsh, according to 2001 census data), the rule applies nonetheless. Whether bilingual public signage actually provides support for language retention is an open and very interesting question, but at the very least it reflects a changing language ideology in the region in favour of Welsh.
Another set of interesting issue around this mistranslation is raised in the comments on the Language Log post. Bob Moore wonders, “I am left wondering who this automated reply could possibly be intended for. Since virtually all Welsh speakers also speak English, surely this person’s clients are mainly English speakers who do not speak Welsh. But those are exactly the folks who would not understand the message.” Bill Poser suggests that it is possible that a Welsh linguistic nationalist would have a monolingual Welsh auto-reply as an expression of identity (a situation that would be quite familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Montreal). However, a couple of other respondents point out that perhaps the auto-reply was bilingual, but that the hapless recipient took the English to be the auto-reply part of the message, and then understood the Welsh part to be the actual translation.