From Bras Basah to ‘Bust’ Basah: Notable translation gaffes in S’pore

SINGAPORE – Translation errors of government materials in the mother tongue languages have tickled and rankled people here over the past decade.

The Ministry of Communications and Information started the National Translation Committee in 2014 to improve the quality of translation across Singapore’s four official languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Here are some notable linguistic blunders that organisers have apologised for.

Errors in National Day Parade Tamil text (August 2020)

During the National Day Parade (NDP) show, one line of Tamil song lyrics meant to read “My Singapore” had strokes and letters in the wrong places.

The Tamil words for “friends” and “siblings” were also misspelt.

The NDP 2020 Executive Committee apologised for the error.

In 2017, NDP organisers apologised for Tamil language errors printed in publicity pamphlets distributed to Primary 5 pupils in 162 schools.

Jumbled letters had rendered the phrase “let’s come together as one nation” in these promotional materials gibberish.

No disrespect for the Speak Mandarin Campaign (July 2017)

Instead of using the Chinese character for “read”, the character for “to show disrespect” was used on a rostrum sign. PHOTO: ST FILE

Instead of using the Chinese character for “read”, a character for “disrespect” or “contempt” was displayed prominently on a rostrum sign at a Speak Mandarin Campaign event.

Both characters sound the same when spoken. They also look similar in written Chinese but minor stroke differences change their meaning.

The sign was meant to show four characters – listening, speaking, reading and writing – which make the fundamentals of learning languages .

The organisers apologised for the mistake and said the error was introduced during the production process but was noticed only during the launch.

Wrong Tamil translation of Lau Pa Sat sign (November 2014)

A photo of a signboard of popular food destination Lau Pa Sat showing the wrong Tamil translation. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

An incorrectly translated sign for hawker centre Lau Pa Sat circulated on social media in November 2014.

While the Tamil words for “Lau” and “Pa” were correct, the word “Sat” was translated to “Sani”, which means Saturday in Tamil. The word, however, can also be used to curse people in Tamil.

In the Hokkien dialect, Lau Pa Sat means “old market”.

Following the incident, the Singapore Tourism Board said it would tighten the process of translating its brown signs, whose colour indicates tourist attractions or landmarks.

From Bras Basah to “Bust” Basah (2013)

The National Heritage Board sparked furore after it included a Google Translate button on its site to convert content from English to 72 other languages.

One of Singapore’s oldest districts, Bras Basah, was reduced to “Bust” Basah in Chinese (literally translated as bra).

The board discontinued the service after eagle-eyed members of the public highlighted the error.

The name “Bras Basah” is a transliteration of the Malay words “beras basah”, which means wet rice.