Translation challenges of Kriol signage in the Top End

Supposedly Kriol signage at Rapid Creek, Darwin

Supposedly Kriol signage at Rapid Creek, Darwin

When I shared this Kriol sign on Facebook as an example of a bad Kriol translation, a first language Kriol speaker commented:

Im nomo Kriol garjinga, bambai aibina sabi. [It’s not Kriol for goodness sake, otherwise I would’ve understood it.]

My thoughts exactly. And also the thoughts of every other Kriol speaker I know who has seen it.

Poorly translated signage isn’t uncommon. Everyone is familiar with the hilarity of Engrish. But when translation is just a commercial novelty, it doesn’t matter too much. However, when government departments seek out translation services, you can assume that it is for an important reason. And when that goes wrong, it is more serious and more embarrassing. My favourite example of this is an English sign emailed off to be translated into Welsh. The resultant sign features an ‘Out Of Office’ auto-reply message in Welsh!

The Welsh message on this road sign translates as "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated."

The Welsh message on this road sign translates as “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

Kriol, as the most widely spoken language in the Northern Territory after English, is one of the main languages that people in the Top End seek out translation services for. There are challenges to providing translation services in Kriol. Firstly, while Kriol has a standard spelling system – courtesy mostly of the Bible translation work – it is not widely known (and not taught in any schools). Secondly, Kriol does vary from place to place so spellings are often altered to reflect localised pronunciations. Thirdly, translation is not something that can be done by anyone who knows two languages. It is a professional skill that requires training and experience before it can be done well.

While well-translated Kriol signs can be found, the sign recently put up by the Department of Primary Industries near Rapid Creek in Darwin is not one of those.

Well-written bilingual signage as you enter Barunga community

Well-written bilingual signage as you enter Barunga community

It doesn’t take a linguist to note the obvious spelling inconsistencies. Some words are spelled in Kriol such as krik (creek), kreb (crab) and masul (mussel). A few are Kriol-looking words with English spelling influences, like eatem (in Kriol spelling: idim) and lunga (meaning “in/at/on/to”, usually spelled langa). And the rest is in ordinary English spelling. Given the mixed-up spelling systems used, an obvious question should be: what language is this sign supposed to be in?

But the bigger issue is that it actually doesn’t make sense. At least not to any Kriol speakers I know (and I know a lot).

Two phrases are particularly nonsensical. Wadrim trabul (presumably derived from ‘water-im trouble’) is not a thing that makes any sense to me and nothing I would ever say if I was on an interpreting job.

The weirder one is …lunga being looked atLa or langa (their ‘lunga’) is a preposition locating something in space, usually translating as “in/at/on/to” in English. So the phrase translates to something like … ‘at being looked at’? Je suis confused. On top of that, the phrase ‘being looked at’ is not a structure you’d find in Kriol so I don’t know what it is doing there.

Another example of a well-translated English-Kriol sign

Another example of a well-translated English-Kriol sign

Sadly, despite the commendable gesture to provide signage in Kriol, this result is well below par. The apparent goal of the sign – to communicate a message in Kriol – has not been achieved.

When I first saw this sign being shared on Facebook, I immediately questioned its quality, as did others. All Kriol-speaking contacts – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – were equally confused by it (Numu gud wan dunja dat sign braja – “that’s not a good sign, brother” – wrote a Kriol-speaking mate from Ngukurr in imperfectly spelled but perfectly understandable Kriol).

So, in an effort to actually be helpful, I called the number on the sign to let the department know that their sign is poorly made. The response from the Department of Primary Industries was surprising. Despite my professional advice that it is poorly made, they are standing by it. They told me the translation was done by Aboriginal Broadcasting and placed importance on the fact that it was done by Aboriginal people. Whether they have produced a translation that is actually communicatively useful seems to be a secondary concern. I tried to point out some of the above – that the inconsistent spelling is a clue to it being a poor translation and that all Kriol speakers I know who have seen it find it poor – but it made no difference.

English only version of questionably translated sign at Rapid Creek, Darwin

English only version of questionably translated sign at Rapid Creek, Darwin

This is all a bit of an unfortunate shemozzle. It is disappointing that Aboriginal Broadcasting has apparently delivered poor quality language services and disappointing that the Department of Primary Industries were apparently not interested in addressing the poor work they had commissioned.

The message here is, find someone who has skills and experience in translation, not just someone who can take your money and do an efficient-but-ultimately-poor job. And yes, the provision of quality translation services in Aboriginal languages is difficult and may take longer than you expect, but if you try a bit harder, you can make it work.

Someone on Facebook posted the English version of the sign, and it took me about one minute to translate it into something that would make much more sense to a Kriol speaker:

La Mei en Jun, mela testimbat dijan woda bla meiksho im klinwan en seifwan. Nomo idim eni fish, kreb o masul, dumaji im maitbi nogud.


An extended version of this post was first published on that munanga linguist.

If you want to learn more about Kriol, you might find this explainer on the Conversation useful.

Author Greg Dickson

Greg Dickson has worked on Kriol and traditional Aboriginal languages of the Katherine Region since 2002 under various guises including community linguist, language centre administration, researcher, lecturer/trainer and Kriol-English interpreter. He completed his PhD through the Australian National University in 2015 considering the loss and maintenance of cultural knowledge that coincides with language shift. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, investigating dialectal variation in Kriol as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

More posts by Greg Dickson
  • Thanks, Greg, for this interesting post! It strikes me that the low quality of the translation and the response you received from the Department for Primary Industries are yet another manifestation of the monolingual mindset. That languages other than English are systems in their own right is relatively invisible to monolingual English speakers, and this is particularly true when it comes to Kriol – as Sally Dixon and Denise Angelo have also shown with reference to Kriol in schools, in a great article about “dodgy data and language invisibility” (see ). They observed a similar confusion between language and identity – or misrecognition of ethnic background as language proficiency – that is evidenced in the response you received from the Department.


    Really interesting, Greg. In my fieldwork in Sth China, some participants found government signage in Zhuang language to be incorrect and, therefore, quite insulting rather than a symbolically inclusive use of language, which is what the sign in question seemed to be aiming for. I imagine seeing the incomprehensible Kriol-ish sign you photographed, and then to have the government author wrongly stand by it, must be insulting or infuriating to people too! In a much more positive example, I recently saw the Australian adaption of the play King Lear, called The Shadow King, which makes a feature of Kriol and other Aboriginal languages and stars Tom E Lewis, who also co-developed the play. It was very successful in Australia and is now on in the UK, with the Australian cast. I haven’t found much commentary on its use of language – whether it’s seen as correct or incorrect, or its performative functions – but Tom E Lewis recounts the show’s popularity with Aboriginal language-speaking audiences in Katherine: If you saw the play, Greg, what did you think of the use of Kriol?

    • Wamut

      Hi Alex, thanks for the comment. And yes, I agree that the poorly done translation not only misses its obvious communicative goal but symbolically probably gives has a reverse effect on how the sign putter-uperrer was hoping to be perceived.

      I got to see the Shadow King when it was performed in Katherine a couple of years back. On the language side of things, it has been done very well. Tom E Lewis is a first language Kriol speaker and Kamahi Djordon King who is also in the cast is a Katherine local and is very familiar with the language. I know both of them personally and they, along with the rest of the cast, were heavily involved in the script development. When I saw The Shadow King in Katherine, I was lucky enough to be in the audience along with several dozen people from the community of Beswick (where Lewis has worked for many years) and there was no evidence that the language side was done poorly. In particular, I recall a more senior woman from Beswick who I doubt had ever been to a indoor staged theatre performance before, was really struck by the Yolngu Matha speaking actor and was glued to her every word. Was a great night to be there.

      It just demonstrates further the arts industry really does lead the way in acknowledging and including Indigenous languages.