Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Rambla: In the name of participation

In one of its not infrequent moments of translation comedy gold, the trilinguistically-correct Balearic Government recently pressed the click button on its machine translation system of choice and revealed - on its own website - that the minister for public administration had acquired a completely new name. Staggeringly, this was machine translation from Catalan to Castellano and thus Nuria Riera became Nuria Rambla. There is a fairly obvious question here. Why does a government with a firmly pro-Castellano policy in a land where Castellano is a co-official language supposedly spoken by everyone need to use Bing or Google to translate into Castellano? Catalan hasn't taken over that much, surely.

The machine-translation game is one with endless possibilities for amusement and entertainment, and it is one that the regional government has perfected. It has, just as one example, a form on its website in English that allows you to find out about activities of associations. It notes, however: "You can accede to the codes of the purposes and their activities doing click on the attached text document. We noticed to you that the data of the associations enrolled in this new computer science system come from the old application and some still are reviewing since they are updated periodically. By this, it is possible that some data still appear with the old code or information nonupdated. We worked with the objective to reach a complete information. You excuse the annoyances."

Strangely, when one clicks on "directori d'associacions", you get by default this English form. It is doubly strange given that there is virtually nothing else in English on this part of the public administration ministry's section of the government's website. It is a part of the website for "citizen participation" and in particular something called "Balear Opina". This is a new "virtual space", a press release has usefully informed us, to "enhance citizen participation" by bringing together "all resources and tools to enable (citizens') contributions". Just some of these contributions can be questions, suggestions and requests for information, but don't anyone go expecting that there is something approximating freedom of information, because there isn't, while these questions, suggestions and requests had better all be made in Catalan or Castellano. Try asking in English and God alone knows how Google will mangle the question. In fact, to be on the safe side, it would be best to ask in Catalan, as the government doesn't appear to understand Castellano either; hence, Nuria Rambla.

The Balear Opina and citizen participation thing are, so the website tells us, concepts to which the government is committed. As is normal for any government communication, it insists on citing laws and decrees which give credence to this commitment, and it starts by saying that "democracy is based on ... the plurality of ideas and opinions; it is necessary to create a mechanism for control and management (of elected representatives) by the public outside the election period".

Democracy is indeed based on the plurality of opinions, but some opinions become law whereas others remain simply opinions. Take, if you will, the language issue. As the majority of citizens reject the opinion of elected officials who have passed legislation which undermines Catalan, will the Balear Opina mechanism enable the citizens, through control and management, to have this legalised opinion changed? Of course it won't. You can read "mechanism for control and management" as meaning holding elected officials to account, and if they really were held to account, then they would alter legislation that is at variance with majority opinion. But government doesn't work like this. Here or anywhere. The participation thing is a grand illusion.

For Nuria Riera, no doubt, the Balear Opina is a fine creation of governmental openness, communication and explanation. As ever, though, there is a great difference between the practice of openness and its theory. Take another example, the Partido Popular's discount card for members. The hoo-hah over this was brought to an abrupt halt when Riera announced that the card was perfectly legal and that the government had nothing more to say on the matter. The correspondence was closed, so to speak.

Riera is relatively new to governmental circles. She clambered aboard the Good Ship Bauzá, listing because of the storms of Catalan, after the president sacked half his cabinet in May last year. She got the job at public administration, a ministry rarely under public scrutiny because no one is too sure what it does, and also took over the unenviable task of government spokesperson. She's the one, therefore, who has to try and explain what on earth it's up to. And now she can be conscious of what opinion the public has. Or ignore what opinion the public has. There is, if you play the Google-Bing game, a different translation of her name. From Castellano to English. Laugh. Having one.

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