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Translation Challenges in Singapore: Is it English or is it Singlish?

Singapore, often celebrated as a multicultural and multilingual melting pot, presents a unique set of challenges for translation. With a rich linguistic tapestry woven from English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, the question arises: Is it English or is it Singlish?

In this article, we delve into the world of Singlish and how it shows up in translation and transcription projects.

A view of the large fountain inside Jewel Changi Airport.

The Faces of Singlish

Singlish, short for Singaporean English, is a creole language spoken by many Singaporeans in their daily lives. It's a colloquial blend of English, Malay, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), Tamil and more, and it has its own grammatical rules and word order. This linguistic phenomenon embodies the spirit of Singapore's multicultural identity. However, it also poses unique challenges for writers and translators alike.

When dealing with Singlish, transcribers and translators face a dilemma. Should they translate Singlish into proper English, or should they preserve the local flavour? The answer depends on the context and audience.

In some cases, Singlish may be appropriate, such as in informal settings, selected marketing campaigns or entertainment. But for legal, academic or business documents, English is often preferred. This is because English is seen as the proper language, whereas Singlish is mainly spoken and used in casual settings.

There is a minefield to tread when it comes to what is considered proper English and what is not. This carries sensitives and lingering hurts from our young nation’s colonial past. At one end, there are linguistic purists who bemoan the blatant disregard of English grammar, and there are those who put Singlish on as a badge of honour and view any speaker of standard English through the lens of suspicion at the other. Like many other countries, how one speaks and expresses themselves is often used as a marker of social background and status, however much society tries to alleviate it.

But in any case, Singlish is a great ice-breaker in many situations. English speakers who usually go about their everyday business activities using standard English can sometimes break the monotony of their conversations by using Singlish, which immediately changes the dynamics and energy of their interactions and has the effect of making them appear more human and approachable. It is not uncommon for audiences to start laughing when a speaker throws in some Singlish in the middle of a speech. A good communicator is able to use Singlish to good effect.

Singlish Translation vs. English Translation

Singlish translation involves capturing the essence of the Singlish language while making it comprehensible to a wider audience. This requires an intimate understanding of the Singlish, which can be a complex task due to its ever-evolving nature. A skilled translator must navigate the subtle nuances, idioms and cultural references that are intrinsic to Singlish.

On the other hand, English translation aims to convey the same message in standard English, ensuring clarity and precision. In professional and legal contexts, English translation is crucial. A Singaporean translator understands these complexities and tailors the translation to specific needs.

Singlish Transcription

Singlish transcription involves converting spoken Singlish into written form, which is then used as the base text for translation into other languages.

You will find the application of this in the production process of corporate videos or documentaries. Some clients want the subtitles of the dialogues to be in presented in proper English, whereas others prefer to preserve the flavour of Singlish in the subtitles.

Another application of Singlish transcription can be found in legal proceedings, where audio or video recordings of Singlish conversations and dialogues are submitted to the courts as evidence, and they need to be submitted along with an English transcript.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of a transcript is “a written copy of the exact words that someone said”. So in most cases, the “English” transcript submitted to the courts is, in actual fact, a Singlish transcript. Some lawyers may request for an English translation to be added below the transcribed Singlish dialogue in the transcript.

Legal Translation: A Special Challenge

Legal translation in Singapore poses a unique challenge. The legal system relies heavily on precise language, and even a slight misinterpretation can have significant consequences. When dealing with materials that involve Singlish, it is important to consider how such materials will be used in the legal proceedings.

As mentioned earlier, it is common practice not to tweak, beautify or paraphrase Singlish speech, so that original meanings and intentions are not lost in translation. In the case of speech where meaning is unclear, the translator-transcriber will highlight the problem areas for discussion with the client or parties involved. In the event that a suitable term cannot be found, a note with explanation may be added.

Unlike what many people outside of the translation industry mistakenly assumes, professional translation is the result of different rounds of research, checks, proofreading, clarifying of questions and fine-tuning by sometimes more than one linguist. A skilled translator is not someone who sits at a computer and types out the translation in one sitting and then hands in a perfect piece of translation.

Sultan Mosque at Arab Street in Singapore

Navigating the Cultural and Linguistic Maze

Singapore's linguistic diversity is a reflection of its multicultural society, but it's also a potential minefield for miscommunication. The intricate web of languages, dialects and customs creates a challenge for anyone attempting translation in this dynamic environment.

In the context of Singlish translation, understanding the cultural context is just as vital as linguistic expertise. What might be a common Singlish phrase for a local could be entirely baffling to an outsider. This is when it is important to work with a skilled translator with deep knowledge of the Singaporean and Singlish context so that the translation or transcription produced is accurate and faithful to the source.

The mistake that some translation agencies make is engaging English transcribers who are unfamiliar with Singlish and the Singaporean accent to listen to and transcribe the audio and video files, resulting in inaccurate transcripts that require extensive corrections or rework further down the line. To avoid this situation, it is important to check that the agency or freelance translator that you engage understands the Singlish and Singaporean context.

The Future of Singlish Translation

As Singapore continues to evolve, so too will the role of Singlish translation. The ongoing global influence of English, combined with the importance of maintaining cultural identity, will shape the way translation services are provided.

Professional translation agencies will play a crucial role in this landscape, serving as the bridge between Singlish, English and other languages. Their expertise, cultural awareness, and linguistic dexterity will ensure that the vibrant heart of Singlish remains intact while facilitating communication on a broader scale.

MCCY/MICA Building (Old Hill Street Police Station) in Singapore


The translation landscape in Singapore is a testament to the country's rich diversity and adaptability. As long as Singaporeans continue to celebrate their cultural and linguistic heritage, the question of how we use English or Singlish may remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure – the art of translation will continue to flourish.

A competent Singapore translation agency like Wei.Trans.Create is equipped to navigate these intricate linguistic waters, preserving cultural identity while fostering effective communication. To partner up with us, contact us to discuss your Singlish translation and transcription needs!

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