Bilingual website, my arse!

The “Irish” version of Fianna Fáil’s website. Most of the text you see is actually English.

The “Irish” version of Fianna Fáil’s website. Most of the text you see is actually English.

What do the Irish Department of Finance, Ireland’s South-Eastern Regional Assembly and the Irish political party Fianna Fáil have in common? They all have bilingual websites which aren’t really bilingual. And they’re not alone, I’ve only chosen these three pretty much randomly as examples. Take a look at the Fianna Fáil website for instance. If you click on the “Gaeilge” (“Irish”) link, you are taken to what claims to be the Irish version of their website. It turns out, though, that only the menus and other boiler-plate texts are in Irish, the rest of the content remains in English.

This is nothing unusual. It is a whole new trend in Ireland now and it allows organizations to claim they have a bilingual website when really they don’t. All they have to do is a one-off translation of the text that never changes, the website’s “furniture”. But the actual content, the text that changes often and for which people may actually want to visit the website, remains in English.

I don’t know whether this is a deliberate attempt to fool people, or just a failure to appreciate that running a bilingual website requires a more serious commitment than just translating a bunch of text snippets once. Some of these organizations are legally obliged to communicate with the public bilingually, as per the Official Languages Act, so this may be a trick on their part to appear like they’re complying when in fact they aren’t. But others, such as political parties, are not under the scope of the Official Languages Act and are not obliged to have websites in Irish if they don’t want to. So why do they, too, play these tricks? I think it’s because they want to appear like they are in favour of the Irish language but don’t want to actually spend any effort on it.

This raises the question, who are these websites really intended for and what do they actually achieve? Clearly, they’re not intended for people like yours truly who genuinely want to use the website through Irish, because we can’t, all the interesting content is only in English. They’re probably directed at a more general audience (of mostly English speakers) who are expected to merely register the peripheral impression that this organization vaguely “supports Irish”, but then continue in English. In other words, it’s an example of linguistic tokenism, on a par with the long-established but still ridiculous practice of starting a speech with “a chairde” (“dear friends”) and then continuing in English. It achieves nothing, except that people go home reinforced in the subconscious conviction that Irish is merely a language for symbolic decoration and that only English is good for the important stuff.

To be fair, not all organizations in Ireland are guilty of this. Some do have genuinely bilingual websites. And many others at least don’t pretend to have something they don’t have. The Fine Gael website (Fine Gael is a major opposition party in Ireland) does not claim to be fully bilingual (it doesn’t say or imply “click here for an Irish version of this” anywhere) but they do have a section called “Luachanna Fhine Gael” (“the values of Fine Gael”) where they have a short “aspirational” text in Irish. That’s not ideal, but at least they’re being honest about how small their commitment to Irish on the web is.

As a little digression, the Fine Gael website has a section in Polish (“FG Polski”). Funnily enough, when you click your way through to the Polish section, you’ll find that it has subsections in Russian and Lithuanian. I mean, Russian and Lithuanian as subsections of Polish? If I were Russian or Lithuanian, I’d be a little affronted to see I’m being treated as a subcategory of Polish – notwithstanding that I probably wouldn’t be looking for Russian or Lithuanian content under “Polish” in the first place. So Fine Gael got it (kind of) right in their treatment of Irish but completely wrong with the other languages. It demonstrates again how clueless the Irish web industry really is when it comes to handling content in more than one language.

The only way to stop such blunders from happening is for people to complain about them, like I’m doing now. Complain about them, attract attention to them and show the perpetrators how silly it makes them look. If people don’t complain, then nothing is going to change and linguistic tokenism will continue to rule.

P. S. Oh, and regarding the title – it’s my blog, I can say “arse” if I want to 🙂

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