Blog post: A personal reflection on the evolution of bilingual design

In this blog, Heledd Evans from NRW's Digital Services team shares her personal reflection on the evolution of bilingual design in public services. 

This was written and published as a chapter in a new book, Trio writing: a new approach to designing digital bilingual services, published by the Centre for Digital Public Services.

Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg! (which means ‘keep at it, and you’ll break the rock!’)

My first ever job after university was translating the Environment Agency website into Welsh. 

I wasn’t a qualified or experienced translator. I didn’t have a degree in Welsh, nor any other language, and I didn’t even have a Welsh A level. This probably wouldn’t happen today. 

A lot has changed since then – standards, processes – and the conditions for people to create good bilingual services in the Welsh public sector are more favourable than ever. 

Now, having worked in public sector bodies in Wales for more than 17 years, here’s my story of the evolution of bilingual web publishing and content design.


Making more Welsh content available 

It was 2006. I had recently moved to Cardiff and was looking for my first ‘proper job’. A recruitment agency was looking for someone that could write in Welsh with some experience in web design. It was for an environmental agency, which sounded interesting. I gave it a go.

Two of us started on a 6-week contract in February of 2006 – hired for our experience of the web and ability to speak and write in ‘normal Welsh’.

Our job was to take a page at a time and rewrite it in Welsh. Once we’d finished a page, we’d print it out and pass it to a colleague in the Comms team who would mark-up any grammatical and spelling errors. We made our corrections and published the Welsh content. As the weeks went on, we had a lot more Welsh on the website.

Making the case for Welsh

There was excitement that more of the website was going to be translated. Only the homepage and some of the main landing pages were in Welsh when we arrived.

The right conditions for us to be there doing this work would not have happened overnight. Relationships had been built. There was one story about Welshcakes being posted to colleagues in Bristol and London on St David’s Day as part of a long-running attempt to build awareness and appreciation of the Welsh language.

A lot of time and effort would be spent arguing whether something needed to be translated or not. A good friend and colleague remembers that after yet another conversation about why something needed to be translated, the person responded with “We’ll have to do it in Cornish next”. This attitude was commonplace at the time.

Standards and expectations for Welsh language provision in public services were lower than they are today. Most public sector organisations had Welsh language schemes, which set out what they had to translate, but these didn’t have as much teeth or clarity as what followed a few years later when organisation had to comply with the law following the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

Where was the translator in all this

Our experience with translators of this era was that they wrote very differently to how an average Welsh speaker would speak.

‘Proper Welsh’ – or ‘Eisteddfod Welsh’ as some would refer to it – was technically and grammatically correct but you probably needed a degree to understand it.

Yet, we accepted that that’s what translators did – they wrote things in ‘official’ Welsh. Part of the job for many Welsh-speaking staff, especially in communications teams, would be to re-write or edit translations into what we called ‘normal Welsh’.

Building barriers – not enabling…

In my opinion, the ‘proper Welsh’ was putting people off from engaging with us in their first language. One of my good friends, a fluent Welsh speaker, when I asked her if she completed the Census in Welsh in 2021 said, “oh no, I don’t do official stuff in Welsh, I won’t understand it”.

It was frustrating – after years of campaigning and getting laws in place for things to be available bilingually – how often I would hear people say that they would turn to the English. 

I think things have improved with time, but people remember their past experiences with public sector services and content. 

This is important context for anyone who forms opinions or makes decisions about low usage or no requests for Welsh language content over the years. 

Writing clearly in English, and in Welsh

In defence of the translators, the original content they were translating was often unclear and full of jargon. Until plain English and user-centeredness is adopted wholescale in public sector organisations, it will be hard to embed its Welsh-language equivalent, ‘Cymraeg clir’. 

I was first introduced to the principles of plain English by David Cameron (not the ex-Prime Minister). He was a communications expert specialising in the written word and he was part of a group that led a campaign on ‘writing clearly for the Environment Agency'.

I probably learnt more about the English language, grammar, and the importance of writing clearly with him than I ever did in school. It gave people like me the confidence and tools to fight against the corporate public sector gobbledygook. 

Welsh guidelines and training were also developed in partnership with Canolfan Bedwyr, Bangor University. On that training course, I heard about how modern Welsh had evolved and I learnt that both the ‘proper Welsh’ and my Welsh were both correct, just different. 

Had I studied Welsh at A level or degree-level I may well have known this, of course. But, as an ‘average’ Welsh speaker, who was used to seeing written Welsh in a formal setting, it was exciting for me to see something different, and I felt that there was a lot of support and goodwill for ‘Cymraeg Clir’. 

New organisation and standards 

In 2013, a new arm’s length body was created – Natural Resources Wales.

This was around the same time as the new Welsh language standards came into force. The Welsh language standards were created by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. They promote and facilitate the Welsh language, and ensure that the Welsh language is not treated less favourably than the English language in Wales. 

Following this, we had a Welsh Language Standards Officer. I could immediately see the value of having a person that was responsible for advising the organisation to make better, clearer decisions when it came to the Welsh language. 

No longer would people who worked in the Communications team need to be pulled into conversations with colleagues about whether something needed to be translated.

In this sense, in my experience, the standards did their job, and worked well. 

Write (and translate) > Publish > Done

As new translators joined, my urge to edit and change the content of every email, letter and web page that I received from translation diminished.

More content than ever before was being translated. A good thing in principle, but the focus was on the outputs – getting it done – rather than on the real outcome… that is to say, ‘who’s reading it?’, ‘do they understand it?’, and ‘did they choose to use their Welsh?’

In most cases we were doing what we needed to meet the standards – publishing things to an equal standard. Great. But often this meant we had content and services that were equally hard to use and understand in English and in Welsh. 

A change..

In 2019 we introduced our first content design roles into our team. It felt revolutionary. It allowed us to focus on making content clearer and bang the drum for user centred design. 

Around this time, the Translation team became part of the Digital team. This was a good fit for us, as the momentum for user-centred design would mean we’d be working together closer. 

This would set us up to truly work in a different way, always focussing on the user and in a language they felt comfortable using.

People who cared for users and for Welsh language content

After years of peering over the fence (with envy!) at Government Digital Services and following the introduction of the digital standards in the UK (England and Scotland mainly), Canada, Australia… something happened in Wales that changed everything for me.

In 2020, a team of brilliant people, with support from Ministers, set up something for Wales that we’d never had before. This was the Centre for Digital Public Services (CDPS), and the first Digital Service Standards for Wales. It included a standard for Welsh, as part of being ‘user-centred’: 

“You need to design and build services that promote and ease the use of Welsh” 

This filled a gap that the Welsh language standards hadn’t covered sufficiently.

I could see how with this as a standard, public bodies could move from translation being an often forgotten part of a process, to designing good bilingual services where translators worked with content designers and others from the beginning. 

The first meetings of the Building Bilingual Services communities of practice

In late 2020 and early 2021, the first meetings of the Building Bilingual Services communities of practice took place. 

It was a place to hear each other's stories – the struggles and accomplishments. 

Despite a small number of us being from the Welsh public sector, many of those who shared examples were UK Central Government bodies – probably because they’d been working to the service standards, and were more likely to have roles as content designers and user researchers.

A talk by Élise Cossette a content designer from the Canadian Digital Service was inspiring – they were designing content in both languages, rather than designing in one and translating to another.

Starting to design bilingually

By 2022, we had a new in-house translation team – this meant more internal capacity and the ability to communicate easily back and forth with translation colleagues. Some work is still done externally, but anything that requires close co-operation can be kept in-house. Much is still translated at the end of the process – for some work this may well be inevitable – but for certain projects, the translators are included from the off, even occasionally drafting in Welsh in a process called ‘trio writing’.

One example of where we’ve used the trio writing, was for web content about planting trees, it involved: 

  • a content designer – writing the English content, with feedback from people with subject expertise 
  • a translator – in charge of writing the Welsh
  • a user researcher – who understood the users’ needs and their feedback about the readability of the Welsh version

By working together to make the Welsh text as simple as possible, we were also able to make the English simpler. If anybody was unsure of the exact meaning in either language, it failed the test, and it was redrafted – we made sure there was no having to guess in either language.

In the 2023 Natural Resources Wales Corporate Plan, there was a commitment to allowing time and flexibility for the Welsh to be drafted more creatively than just simply a straightforward translation. We sought feedback from Welsh language readers, and if something worked particularly well in Welsh it could be fed back into the English text also. This has made a difference to the readability of the Welsh version, as well as improving the readability of the English on occasion. The ultimate aim is to use the preparation of content in two languages as a strength – an extra opportunity for contribution – rather than a chore. 

Ymlaen – onwards from here 

It has been a long journey to where we are now. We’ve had to create a culture that:

  1. first and foremost is user-centered, cares for users and cares for content
  2. eliminates the debate over ‘what needed to be translated’
  3. recognises that translators are an essential part of a team who design services. 

So, as we say in Welsh: ‘dyfal donc a dyr y garreg’…which, for me can now mean ‘if you keep at it – it rocks’.

Heledd, Manon and Osian disscussing trio writing at the Eisteddfod 2023

Heledd, with Manon Williams from NRW's Translation Team and Osian Jones from CDPS at the book launch at the Eisteddfod in Boduan, 2023.

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