A Bad Decision

In the recent explosion of comments about the referendum and the decision to ensure that Wales continues to be unfairly funded, one piece of news has not been given the condemnation it deserves.

The Review Panel appointed by the Assembly Commission to look at translation of Assembly proceedings has recommended that translations from English to Welsh should be stopped. Their report is here:


There are a number of positive things to be said about the report. Firstly, that in this digital era, the most authoritative record of proceedings in both plenary and the various committee rooms is the audio-visual record. Senedd.tv is a very welcome resource, and one that I use frequently, though I have to say that the parallel offering by the BBC's Democracy Live service is often easier to use.

Secondly, I was pleased to learn that Y Cofnod had never been published in paper form; it has only ever been made available on-line. This is a good reflection of the Assembly making good use of technology, as are things like voice recognition software (although this was introduced primarily to avoid RSI rather than to provide an easy way of producing a transcript of what was said). But the report highlights that things have developed in recent years and this could be improved further.

Third, the report is right to recognize that not many people are all that interested in what goes on in the Assembly (and that is no doubt equally true for legislatures elsewhere) and that it would be a very good idea to make what happens even more transparent and accessible. In that regard, the idea of a "Cofnod y Werin" that puts a mass of disparate information together in a more user-friendly way is also very welcome.


But despite a whole series of good recommendations on things that can hardly be contentious, the main problem is that the report has recommended that there should be no translation of what is said in plenary or committee from English to Welsh.

I see this as a major problem. From reading the summaries, the report talks of the Review Panel comparing what happens in other bilingual legislatures. The wording is such as to suggest that their recommendations are in line with what happens elsewhere, but reading the detail shows that the recommendation not to translate both ways is in fact contrary to what happens elsewhere. Full bilingual records are produced in each of these four countries: Ireland, Canada, Catalunya and Euskadi. At one end of the scale, very little of the work of the Oireachtas is in Irish, but everything is still translated into Irish. At the other end of the scale, nearly everything said in the Generalitat de Catalunya is in Catalan, but is still translated into Castilian. Our own situation in Wales is probably closest to Euskadi where Euskara is spoken by 25.7% of the population (665,800 out of 2,589,600) and accounts for about 20% of contributions in their parliament.

If these countries make a point of producing full bilingual records of their proceedings, why should we in Wales backtrack on doing the same thing?


The main argument the Review Panel seems to use is that because the audio-visual record is the "true" record, it is not so necessary to produce text versions (which they argue are not so accurate because they do not include intonation and body language) and that by nature a translation can only ever be an interpretation of what was said rather than an exact record. Well, there's nothing to disagree with in that ... except that it's missing the point.

I have on many occasions caught up with a debate in plenary or evidence session in the early hours of the morning on Senedd.tv or Democracy Live. But it's a horribly drawn out way of doing it. I need a special reason to spend two hours watching a debate when it only takes me twenty minutes to read it. Reading the text version is always going to be the quickest and easiest way to find out what was said, and only in rare cases do people need to turn to the video as a primary source. Getting information easily requires a text version—you can't search a video or audio clip for a particular word or phrase—but presenting that information to others is often better done with the video or audio clip. As someone who tries to make good use of video and audio on this blog, I can say with some confidence that the Review Panel's reasoning is flawed, even though it might be well intentioned.

But think. What the Review Panel is proposing is that there should be a text record in English of everything said—whether said in English or Welsh—but not the equivalent for Welsh. So if someone tells me that, say, rail improvements were mentioned last Tuesday in a debate that was not about primarily about rail it would obviously be out of the question to spend two hours watching the video version of the debate to find it. However, as things are at present, I would open Y Cofnod on-line and could easily search in Welsh for "reil", "reilffyrdd" or "tren" and within two or three attempts and in less than thirty seconds find what was said and who said it. I could do that search in English with "rail", "railways" or "train" just as easily. Either way, it would show in either the left hand column or the right. But if what was said in English is not translated into Welsh it would become completely pointless to do that search in Welsh. It would show if it was said in Welsh, but not if it was said in English. The effect of making the change now proposed will be to make it only practical to do searches in English. That makes a mockery of the Assembly's aim of making what it does equally accessible in both Welsh and English.


So in my opinion the Review Panel's recommendation is a regressive, backward step that will make it all but impossible to access the record of proceedings in Welsh. The idea that this is a decision driven by cost is laughable. Dafydd Elis-Thomas has made this one of his personal hobby horses for the past ten years ... even in times when money was being spent liberally. It seems clear to me that money is just being used a pretext because of the present financial situation, but that the prime motivation behind the repeated calls for this change is ideological.

When the suggestion to stop translating from English to Welsh was brought up again last year it attracted fierce criticism from some quarters. This Review Panel was set up in response to that. However I found one part of its terms of reference particularly disturbing:

It was also agreed that any changes recommended by the review to arrangements for the translation of plenary proceedings, would be implemented and, more broadly, that the recommendations from the independent review will provide the basis for public consultation on how the National Assembly’s Welsh language scheme should be revised.

If that is what was agreed, it would appear that those who agreed to it have in effect bound themselves to accept what the report recommends. With hindsight, that must now look like a rather silly thing to have done. Perhaps that explains why there has been so little outcry at the central recommendation, except from outside groups like Bwrdd yr Iaith and Cymdeithas.

But all is not lost. It is for our elected AMs to decide how they want the Assembly to operate, not the Assembly Commission. The Commission is a servant, not a master.

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