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New Maltese road signs that are lost in translation

Transport Malta is putting up new road signs all over the island, but this is not necessarily good news for tourists trying to find their way around – as they are only in Maltese.

The size of the sign will be big enough to accomodate both languages

Foreigners are likely to be none the wiser as St Julian’s becomes ‘San Ġiljan’, Paola is translated to ‘Raħal Ġdid’ and St Paul’s Bay is ‘San Pawl il-Baħar’.

The problem is made worse by the fact town and village names in all maps provided by the Malta Tourism Authority are in English.

Tourists who rent a car and try to drive around can easily get lost in translation, as the names on the signs do not match the maps.

The GPS system also adheres mostly to the English names – although not in all cases: Vittoriosa is ‘Birgu’, but Paola is not referred to as ‘Raħal Ġdid’.

In Sliema (now Tas-Sliema) there are some more baffling signs – around Dingli Street, signs point to the nearby churches as ‘Parroċċa’.

Transport Malta’s new policy follows the guidance of the Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti, a spokesman told The Sunday Times.

The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association was alerted by disgruntled tourists who lamented Gozo was not signposted.

“This caused confusion since tourists wanting to go to Gozo did not understand that Għawdex and Gozo are one and the same,” said MHRA president Tony Zahra.

“We are all appreciative and proud of the Maltese culture but we are also appreciative and aware of the needs of our clients – the tourists.

“We have to respect our clients and communicate with them in a language they can understand: English,” he said, adding that the association had no issue with having signs with Maltese and English names.

But the Maltese council is standing its ground.

“While, for obvious reasons related to our past, road signage in Malta has always been in a foreign language, we believe it’s high time the national language takes precedence, as is common practice in many European countries,” said Thomas Pace, the council’s executive director.

Maltese names, he said, send a clear and immediate message to the tourist that he is in a country with a culture, history and language of its own.

In its plans and projects, the council – a governmental body set up by an Act of Parliament to “adopt a suitable linguistic policy” – is guided by Chapter 470 of the law that states: “Maltese is the language of Malta and a fundamental element of the national identity of the Maltese people.”

However, the council insists it recognises Malta’s bilingual situation, as well as the needs of so many English-speaking tourists.

“The council’s policy, in fact, is to have bilingual signs,” Mr Pace claimed. He explained that when the place name is practically the same in Maltese and English (Il-Marsa/Marsa), only the Maltese name is used.

Slightly different forms (L-Ajruport/Airport) may not need the English version if they are accompanied by a symbol [L-Ajruport].

When the form commonly used in English is quite different from the more current Maltese form, both forms should be given, as in Għawdex (Gozo). However several signs do not follow this: The Sunday Times has come across some indicating Raħal Ġdid, Għawdex, San Ġiljan and San Pawl il-Baħar without the English translation.

Mr Pace said this was due to road sign tenders that had been issued before the bilingual decision was taken.

“Because there was a lack of space on the signs, the Maltese name was given priority. But in the new tenders, the size of the sign will be big enough to accommodate both languages,” he said.

He explained that future signs will be very similar to those in Ireland, with the national language on top in white and the English in yellow underneath.

“We believe this is a sensible and elegant system that gives Maltese place-names their due importance without creating any difficulty to the English-speaking tourist.

“It is also in line with good practice in signage in European countries with a similar bilingual or multilingual situation,” said Mr Pace.

Next on the council’s agenda are the names of sections and wards at Mater Dei Hospital, which have been in English so far, but will soon be displayed in both languages.

“We look forward to a future when we will all feel more confidently European and international, and more unambiguously Maltese,” said Mr Pace.

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