Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Mistranslations and misunderstandings of Fietsberaad articles

View of a residential area in Almere
from one of the very direct cycle-paths
which go through the suburbs of the city
I've noted before that the workings of the Fietsberaad are quite often completely misunderstood by English language commentators. Sometimes this isn't so much the fault of those who read the publications as those who write them.

A new example has come up, and this time it is especially ripe for misinterpretation !

The English language version of a Fietsberaad article, titled "Almere abandons traffic separation principle" says the following:

"Almere has about 190,000 residents and the government has asked the municipality to expand by another 60,000 residences. A characteristic of Almere, as is the case with other new towns, is the strict separation of traffic types. Almere has, for instance, a completely segregated network of bus routes. The municipality’s new Mobility Plan will abandon this concept, at least in part, through the introduction of city streets. City streets are streets or lanes that exhibit a more urban look by diminishing the separation between the traffic and its surroundings. According to the municipality this should enhance the urban experience, participation, and public safety."

That is all the English language version of the article says, and as a result it sounds like a straightforward case of a Dutch city giving up on segregation of modes. However, it's actually a case of a rather less than perfect translation which manages to give entirely the wrong impression of what is being done.

The original Dutch version of the same article is entitled "Almere gaat minder vrijliggende fietspaden aanleggen", or "Almere will construct fewer separate cycle-paths", and the text has a completely different emphasis than the English language translation:

Almere cycle-path offering a direct
route by bike alongside a road with a
30 km/h speed limit which offers an
indirect route by car
Rather than saying that Almere will abandon segregation of different modes, the Dutch article goes into some depth about why Almere has a lower than average (for the Netherlands) cycling modal share for a city of more than 100000 people and how they will improve the cycle-path network with special emphasis on social safety:
  1. The city is relatively spread out, and has many small centres. In its development is has provided fewer opportunities for employment than residences. This has resulted in many people having commutes which are too long for cycling. Also the cycle-path network in Almere has a problem with low social safety. These factors have worked against a high cycling modal share.
  2. Almere seeks to have a main cycle-path network of very good quality that links all important destinations, with 4 m wide red asphalt cycle-paths, direct routes with priority for cyclists (it was the first place in the Netherlands where I saw a traffic light which defaulted to green for bikes) and with a good record of traffic safety.
  3. Due to the low density of Almere, the city is finding the cost of maintaining a tight grid of high quality cycle-paths for the entire area is too high. As a result, maintenance doesn't meet the usual high Dutch standard. For this reason, while Almere will stick with a 300 m x 300 m grid of paths in urban areas, they are considering building cycle-paths at a lower density in less busy suburban areas.
  4. The lower density of cycle-paths in future suburban developments will be achieved by building them only when necessary. Streets in newer developments are less likely to have segregated cycle-paths than was the case previously, but if there are more than 15000 traffic movements per day, it would cause an unsafe situation, or would hinder traffic flow then segregation will still be used to improve safety and comfort.
  5. Furthermore, more attention is to be placed on the social safety of cycle-paths in Almere. Where possible, there should be more "eyes on the bike-path" so that people feel it is safer to cycle. There is to be more thought about where the paths go in order to make this so. The aim is to achieve at least one truly socially safe cycle-route between each district.
Parking at a railway station in Almere
So there you have it. An English version of an article which makes almost entirely a different case to the original Dutch, and which will almost certainly be misunderstood and misinterpreted by readers in the English language.

I don't read every publication by the Fietsberaad in both Dutch and English, so I don't know how often this sort of thing happens.

More about Almere
Almere is the newest city in the Netherlands, built on the world's largest artificial island, Flevoland. The first house built in Almere was completed in 1976 and the city is still under construction. For a Dutch city, Almere has a "low" cycling modal share. "Low" means that "only" 31% of all journeys under 7.5 km are made by bicycle, or 19% of journeys in total.

These are very low figures for the Netherlands, actually lower than the average for the whole of the country (27% of journeys across the entire country are by bike). However, anywhere outside of the Netherlands, Almere would be seen as a leading cycling city.

We are native English speakers with many years of experience of cycling both in the UK and in the Netherlands. We understand the contexts of both English speaking countries and the Netherlands. We do tours on which we demonstrate and explain how cycling infrastructure works in the Netherlands on which misunderstandings like these are avoided.


Koen said...

I read the English translation too, David, and though it did at first raise an eyebrow, being Dutch I quickly understood the general idea. Too bad I didn't read the original. Excellent point of providing the explanation. I guess by now you already now what misery can ensue from these things, and that's probably why you rightly decided to enlighten us beforehand. Thanks!

USbike said...

Hi David, do you know what it is about Almere that is causing the low social safety on the paths?

amoeba said...

Thanks David! It is important to be reminded that not all translations are equally reliable.

Unfortunately there are those whose stock in trade is the misrepresentation of reality and a mistranslation would of course be a gift to such people.

I once happened upon the Amcambike blog, IIRC it was filled with much tendentious and seeming mendacious nonsense, luckily it is apparently no more, it will not be missed.

David Hembrow said...

USbike: It's much as they recognise in the article. Not enough eyes on the path. When cycle paths take routes where people think there might be a mugger hiding in a bush around the next corner, that can lead to them being used less, especially after dark.