By S. Rubatheesan
Sri Lanka’s diverse minorities are not getting essential, urgent public health information from the state as soon as they are released, despite the massive flare-up in the coronavirus every day across the island and patients in their areas, and ever-changing curfew hours and lockdowns.
There is a severe shortage of translators in state offices and vacancies have not been filled for years.
The Government Information Department (GID), is still struggling to ensure trilingual public communications.
Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the GID, says the proliferation of fake news online and offline makes it essential that official statements are released early and translations issued later. The GID has used external translators with little success.
“We are compelled to make those announcements early without simultaneous translations to counter such campaigns. That’s why there has been a delay in issuing translations on time. We are committed to ensuring all announcements are released in all three languages as early as possible,’’ he said.
Mr Kaluwewa admits that the government must improve delivery of trilingual statements on time. The Presidential Secretariat, one of the key state offices that issues announcements in Sinhala on the coronavirus on official social media handles, has also failed to ensure adequate Tamil and English translations.
The director general of the Presidential Media Division (PMD) Mohan Samaranayake, told the Sunday Times, that all statements and announcements from the secretariat are translated into Tamil and English on time, but distributing them online is handled by another unit of the same department. “I’ll look into this matter and will rectify the shortcomings,” he said.
The government has urged Sri Lankans not to rely on unofficial news sources and instead follow statements by the GID, the Presidential Secretariat, Ministry of Health and National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak.
A Health Ministry spokesperson said the delay in Tamil and English translations of press statements is because there are no translators capable of handling health-related releases.
Raising the issue in Parliament on Friday, JVP-led Jathika Jana Balawegaya, Parliamentarian Dr Harini Amarasuriya, said critical health-related statements must be translated and released to the grassroots.
Lawyer, Aingaran Kugathason, who continues to flag the lack of Tamil translations of critical government announcements in his social media account, said the deficiency is not new. It has been the case in the past where government departments ignored the obligation for statements in all three languages.
According to Aingaran, minorities are forced to rely on other outlets for information.
“During the coronavirus crisis in particular, people were concerned about curfew periods and partial lockdowns since most of those announcements were not released in Tamil on time. For how long will officials continue with lame excuses of lack of people? Aingaran asked.
Top officials must ensure translations are provided, he said.
Mrs K. Sanoj Ruvinka Perera of the Department of Official Languages, said that only three people are available to translate Sinhala into Tamil. Many vacancies had not been filled.
“When we called for applications, we didn’t receive an adequate number of applications. Out of 44 positions, 23 slots are still vacant,” Ms Perera said.
The shortage of translators is common in almost all government departments.
The main reasons are the low salaries offered and the requirement of a basic degree, according to S. Alokabandara, director general of combined services division of the Ministry of Public Services, Provincial Government and Local Government.
This department, which is tasked with providing translators to other state offices, does not have Sinhala to Tamil translators.
“Along with a credit pass in the GCE Ordinary Level for Sinhala or Tamil, a basic degree in any subject is mandatory for the post. Recently, some local universities, too, began offering dedicated degrees on translation,” Mr Alokabandara said.
In a recruitment exercise last year, the Department of Official Languages, stated the need for a degree in Tamil or English. Another mandatory requirement is that candidates who passed Tamil language as subject of the degree should have a credit pass in Sinhala language and literature at GCE Ordinary Level, or vice versa.
The starting salary is Rs 37,970 and it can go up to Rs 65,145, with promotions and allowances.
The Ministry of Public Services, Provincial Councils and Local Government, last week began gathering information related to officers of the Government Translators’ Service in state departments across the island and the unfilled vacancies.
Issuing a circular to secretaries of ministries, heads of department, district secretaries and divisional secretaries, D G. Alokabandara sought details of approved positions of translators in Sinhala to English, Sinhala to Tamil, and English to Tamil, currently employed, salary codes, and vacancies. The officials have been told to give details before November 30.
Meanwhile, the Official Languages Commission, another state body that comes under the purview of Ministry of Public Services, is considering amending the job requirements slightly and offering adequate pay for translators.
D. Kalanasooriya, the chairman, said the basic requirements and salary scale would be amended to attract applicants. “That process is a very long one with approval needed from the ministry and cabinet. We are working on it,” he said.