Online French-English translator for federal workers erodes bilingualism, MP says

A new online translator is supposed to be available to all federal workers beginning in April, but translators say it will erode official bilingualism and a local MP agrees, saying it should be halted.

Federal translators worry new online tool is clumsy and a threat to official bilingualism

Hull—Aylmer MP Greg Fergus vows to stall the introduction of the federal online translator, which is planned to roll out April 1. (CBC News)

The Member of Parliament for Hull—Aylmer, Greg Fergus, says a plan to introduce an online French-English translator for federal workers erodes official bilingualism.

The Translation Bureau has seen cuts of close to 700 workers in five years, and its translators say the online translation tool will be another blow. (CBC News)

The translator has been used in a pilot program in six ministries and is being promoted as a helpful tool to promote communication between staff.

It will be launched for all 350,000 workers across the country on April 1 and will be operated through the Translation Bureau.

But the bureau's workers tell CBC News they're concerned the software is so quirky it will chip away at official bilingualism, one bad translation at a time. 

Clumsy tool, says translator

We're all dreading that eventually civil servants will be tempted to use it on a regular basis.- Translation Bureau translator

"It can be a very clumsy tool," said one worker who did not want to be identified due to fears he could lose his job.

"We're all dreading that eventually civil servants will be tempted to use it on a regular basis to get their texts done quickly."

A translator in Translation Bureau, who did not want to be identified due to fears he could lose his job, says morale at the bureau is "awful." (CBC News)

He worries more jobs will be lost at the bureau, where the workforce has shrunk by a third in five years, from close to 2,000 workers to a little more than 1,300.

The bureau is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to promoting the Official Languages Act, which began in 1969 under then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

The act ensures, among other things, that Canadians maintain the right to receive services from federal departments and from Crown corporations in both official languages. The bureau helps make that happen internally and for the public. 

Translation Bureau CEO defends online tool

The bureau's chief executive officer, Donna Achimov, said the online tool, which has been designed to include federal government terminology, is not meant to replace human translators.

Donna Achimov, the Translation Bureau's chief executive officer, says the tool is meant to help workers wade through technical documents and compose minor communications between staff, such as emails and texts, which aren't normally sent to the bureau for translation. (CBC News)

The pilot project showed the translator was being used for workers to understand technical documents, or for small texts, emails and out-of-office messages that were never sent to the bureau for translation, Achimov said.

But similar to Google Translate, the federal online translator can be quirky.

It translated its own French name to the "new tool machine translation," for example.

MP concerned about plan to expand use of online translator 

Hull—Aylmer MP Greg Fergus said making these kinds of mistakes in day-to-day communications could have the effect of slowly eroding official bilingualism at the federal level.

The Translation Bureau is also in Fergus's riding. 

I don't find it acceptable. ... There's no shortcut to this.- Greg Fergus, Hull—Aylmer MP

"I don't find it acceptable. I find it very poor quality, and will just only lead to greater confusion, not greater clarity," he said.

"There's no shortcut to this. The best thing that we can do is make sure people get the right training ... so they can speak both languages effectively and communicate effectively."

Fergus said he has met with other concerned federal colleagues, and that he doesn't like the current plan to launch the translator for federal workers nationally.

"Well, I think this is one of those decisions that were taken by the previous government, who I suspect didn't take the question of official languages very seriously," he said.

"We do."

Bureau's reputation at stake, union says

Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, said the tool may actually be less effective than Google Translate because it doesn't have millions of people constantly improving the translations.
The online translator translates its French title, "nouvel outil de traduction automatique," to "the new tool machine translation." (CBC)

"It may risk endangering the reputation of the bureau, making it less likely that public servants will actually then turn to the Translation Bureau for work of human translators, who are professionals and dedicated to the quality of the French and English," Tremblay said.

But Graham Fraser, Canada's commissioner of Official Languages, suggested the new tool doesn't necessarily degrade government policy as long as "a qualified person ensures the quality of work."​

Government officials from the Treasury Board would not say whether the launch of the online translator will be reconsidered.

But they said the new mandate of the Treasury Board president includes a commitment to end the previous government's neglect in promoting Canada's official languages policy.