Lost in Translation shortfalls in the implementation of Sri Lanka's official lANGUAGES POLICY

The Preamble to the Constitution of Sri Lanka carved in English, Sinhala and Tamil on the doors of Parliament : cover image by Sharanya Sekaram.

The Official Language Act of 1956 replaced English as the official language of then-Ceylon with Sinhala, failing to give recognition to the Tamil language. It was only three decades later, in the 1987 13th Amendment to Article 18 of the Constitution, that both Sinhala and Tamil were granted recognition as official languages of Sri Lanka. In 2009, a further twenty years later, Gazette 25 laid down the National Language Policy, stating regulations that state offices and government departments had to offer services in both languages

Though this policy is in place, shortfalls in implementation mean that individuals and communities across the island face various struggles with daily life and basic administration. Commitment to ensuring equality of language rights is required at a national level. At the moment, politicians are lacking in knowledge of the gravity of the issue – this was illustrated in the case of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement that Tamil should not be brought in as an administrative language, ignorant of the fact that that 2009 policy enforced just that.

Across a wide range of government and even private sector offices, forms and printed material are initially available in Sinhala, on the assumption that everyone speaks the language. If the individual were to request Tamil forms, they would be presented with them but if this request isn’t made, the individual has to resort to working with a language he is not familiar with.

The 1956 hotline to the National Languages Commission was set up to take in complaints on language-related matters and the implementation issues of the Policy. The Commission is overseen by the Ministry of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages. Minister Mano Ganesan regularly speaks on the need to address language issues yet meaningful progress seems slow.

After the last Commissioner resigned, the post was vacant for a few months. There are errors in translation even on the board of the Commission’s office. When officials are asked about these shortcomings, they state that the Commission can’t afford the services of a translator to make the correction, nor can they afford a new signboard. While Commission can direct and recommend for the proper implementation of the policy, it cannot penalise those who do not follow it. There is limited commitment to these issues from those with influence, and complaints brought from the bottom tier usually get lost in administrative and bureaucratic lags somewhere in the middle.

On International Mother Language Day, it is vital that we recognise how an issue as seemingly small as language inequality can hinder an individual's daily life, access to services and search for justice.

Pungudutheevu, Jaffna; It was with the help of a three-wheel driver who had been parked outside the police station that Saraswathi Sivaloganathan was able to report the rape and murder of her daughter, Vidya. Though the police were extremely helpful and patient, the absence of a Tamil-speaking officer or interpreter meant that she was unable to communicate with the Sinhalese officers when she arrived at the station in her distraught state.
Vavuniya; A young rape victim, still in shock after the traumatic incident, relied on her mother to make a statement for her at the police station. There wasn’t an interpreter present and the Sinhalese officer, whose knowledge of the Tamil language was limited, cobbled together a statement from the few words they picked up, incorrectly noting that it was the mother who had been raped. The case was thrown out of court due to the error in the statement and the victim never saw justice.
Kurunegala; The courts in this district operate mostly in Sinhala. A court official told one witness, a Tamil-speaking man, that he was finished questioning him and would be called to the stand later. There was no interpreter present. The witness assumed that the official meant that he would be needed on another day and left the court premises. He was then arrested for contempt of court.
Northern and Eastern Provinces; Even in larger cities like Trincomalee and Jaffna, there is next to no Sinhala used in the operation of government offices. Provincial councils, that have to address the needs of even the minority in the region, offer only limited signage in Sinhala. Kantale in the Trincomalee district is a majority Sinhala area but getting a simple administrative task completed at the Eastern provincial council is difficult due to the lack of bilingual services.
Passara, Badulla; Due to the lack of Tamil-speaking staff or interpreters in the government offices of these areas, citizens face difficulties over essential documents. A young man, years later when applying for higher education, realised that the name that he had been using throughout his life – the name intended for him – did not match the one on his birth certificate, because the Sinhala-speaking officer who carried out the registration made an error in noting down his name when he was born. This is not an isolated incident; the ID was valid to allow one to vote so the Tamil-speaking person realised the error made at his birth when he needed the document to collect ETF and so on.
Ambagamuwa; This Divisional Secretariat is one of the largest in the country, covering up to 8 divisions from Hatton and Maskeliya down to Watawala and Ginigaththena. Certificates of birth, marriage and death have to be acquired from an office that might be very far away from one’s home. People living in the estates of this area have gotten used to the practice of taking one’s own translator along to speed up the process as most of the government offices operate in Sinhala and do not have any Tamil-speaking staff.
Tamil families in this region, who have lived on plantations for generations, are met with the struggle of dealing with administrative and government officers who don’t understand them. Their birth certificates are written in Sinhala and due to their lack of awareness, they only realise much later that they are owed one in their own language. This process is difficult because they are required to travel long distances to the relevant offices, a cost that is extremely difficult for them to bear.
Mundalama; This area on the North-West coast is a majority Sinhala area and for the Tamil-speaking families that reside in the district, it is easier for them to have their documents in Sinhala than in their language purely for convenience in administration matters. Having a Tamil birth or marriage certificate will require translated versions to be produced when needed. Officers claim that there is no one who can read Tamil, asking the individuals to return on a different day when he/she is present – this is repeated till progress is made on the task or till the disheartened individual gives up.

Issues with regard to language rights aren’t just present in these corners of the island. Even in the heart of the capital city, there are shortfalls in implementation of the language policy.

The University of Colombo doesn’t offer certain courses in Tamil. Semi-private higher education institutions such as NSBM and NIBM offer courses only in Sinhala. Public institutions don’t always offer trilingual signage and facilities, despite the demographic of Colombo. Jarring errors in translations can be spotted on buses, where the destination name in Tamil is usually incorrect. The public announcements at train stations are erratic, usually in a haphazard combination that rarely includes all necessary languages.

The issues that arise with regard to basic administrative tasks have long-lasting impact – errors in registration and documentation could inconvenience individuals throughout their lives. Other failures, such as where there aren’t trilingual signboards or forms, limit the access of certain individuals to basic services and experiences on the grounds of state inefficiency.

The lack of commitment to ensuring language equality for minorities is telling of the public perception of how crucial the issue is. What may seem like a wrong translation here and an interpreter absent there actually amounts to systemic ignorance of the basic rights of affected groups. Leaders at the national level need to push for the proper implementation of a policy that has the potential to lead to more meaningful inclusion and reconciliation in the future.

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