Interpreters call on government to scrap automated hiring system

Professional interpreters are urging the federal government to scrap an automated system for hiring freelancers, arguing that doling out jobs to the lowest bidder could further erode the Translation Bureau's ability to fulfil the requirements of the Official Languages Act.

'Lowest bidder' system will jeopardize Translation Bureau's official languages mandate, interpreters say

Interpreters are calling on the federal government to scrap an automated hiring system. (CBC)

Professional interpreters are urging the federal government to scrap an automated system for hiring freelancers, arguing that doling out jobs to the lowest bidder could further erode the Translation Bureau's ability to fulfil the requirements of the Official Languages Act.

The Act requires French and English spoken translation for a range of government activities, from sessions of Parliament to Supreme Court hearings to government conferences.

Public Services and Procurement Canada is preparing to launch the new procurement system for awarding contracts to freelance interpreters, who now perform 60 per cent of the government's spoken translation work, according to their association. 

The project to automate hiring is already a year overdue, and has been beset by technical problems. But for interpreters, the problems go beyond that.

Right interpreter for the job

The International Association of Conference Interpreters Canada's Nicole Gagnon said it could turn the complex process of hiring the right interpreter for the right job into a crude bidding war. 

Currently the Translation Bureau vets contracts to ensure interpreters with nuanced knowledge of legal language, for example, are assigned to translate Supreme Court hearings, Gagnon said. Instead, the new algorithm would simply assign the job to the cheapest available freelancer.

"We feel it's going to be harming the Translation Bureau's ability to fulfil its mandate," Gagnon said.

The association is asking for a halt to the project while the federal government considers June recommendations from the House of Commons standing committee on official languages, which called for an overhaul of the Translation Bureau.

Union supports request for delay

The union representing interpreters supports the call for a delay.

"Let's wait until the government issues its response to the committee recommendations before moving along with those technological changes," said Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, the union representing translators, interpreters and terminologists working for the federal government.

The Federal Government is expected to respond to the committee's recommendations in late September.

The Translation Bureau has already faced criticism over its new Portage software used by public servants for desktop translation.

"This is part of a broader trend we've noted, that it seems as though people can be replaced by machines, and this is a big mistake," said Tremblay.

Training sessions 'a disaster'

Interpreters attending training sessions on the automated hiring system this summer described them as "a disaster" and said the trainer conceded the system was not ready, their association claimed.

The latest delay is related to the process of loading up the system with pre-qualified interpreters. The deadline for interpreters to participate in the "request for standing offers" has been pushed back another month to Sept. 29 due to technical problems.

The Translation Bureau's director of conference interpretation, Matthew Ball, sent an email to interpreters informing them of the latest extension.

"We acknowledge that this represents a major change and we understand that this is a big adjustment for the freelance community and we appreciate your patience and understanding," Ball wrote.