Sri Lanka bus sign
The second line is in Tamil … but it says “dogs” instead of “mothers”

Sri Lanka’s government has apologised for errors in translating official notices and documents into the language of the minority Tamil community.

A number of mistakes have been highlighted recently in local media.

One was of a sign that read “Reserved for pregnant mothers” in Sinhala and English. A mistake changed that to “Reserved for pregnant dogs” in Tamil.

Officials stress that sloppiness was to blame and there was never any intention to insult Tamils.

Sri Lanka emerged from a long civil war between the Sinhala-dominated army and Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.

‘Not fluent’

Museum sign in Sri LankaThe only Tamil word spelt correctly in this sign is the place name Galle

Minister for National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakara, told BBC Tamil that the mistakes had been made 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 added.

Some Tamils say it is quite common to find mistakes in their language.

“Tamils find language errors in name boards on buses, streets and many government official buildings,” says a local Tamil rights activist, S Balakrishnan.

They also allege that Tamils find it difficult when visiting government offices as many officials can’t speak Tamil fluently.

Language policy

The issue of language in Sri Lanka is highly sensitive.

Sri Lanka endured more than 30 years of war

In 1956, the government decided to replace English as the country’s official language with Sinhala, the language of the majority.

But it did not give official status to Tamil.

Many Tamils lost government jobs because they were not fluent in Sinhala.

Although the policy was eventually amended, the decision contributed to a growing sense of alienation in the Tamil minority.

Confrontation between the two communities erupted into full-scale civil war in 1983, with the Tamil Tigers fighting for a separate homeland.

‘National harmony’

Two years ago, the government started a 10-year plan to implement what it describes as a trilingual policy.

It says the aim is to give English official status alongside Sinhala and Tamil, both of which are now official languages under the constitution.

The government will print name boards in all three languages in all government offices throughout the country, according to Minister Vasudeva Nanayakara.

The minister called on people to come forward of their own accord with examples of mistakes in Tamil.

But Tamil activists called on the minister to appoint a group to check for mistakes so they could be corrected immediately.

BBC News