Online translator helps federal workers 'do their job,' say defenders

The federal departments behind a translation tool that has been criticized as "clumsy" defended the software on CBC Radio's All In A Day on Thursday.

French-English translator developed by National Research Council over 10 years

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 federal departments behind a translation tool that has been criticized as "clumsy" are defending the software as a way for employees to gain confidence working in both official languages.

The online tool was developed by the National Research Council and will be operated by the government's Translation Bureau when it is launched for 350,000 workers across the country on April 1.

It was tested in a pilot project with 300 public servants last summer.

The tool comes as the bureau's workforce has shrunk from 2,000 to a little more than 1,300 employees over the course of five years.

Translation Bureau CEO Donna Achimov said the tool is not meant to replace human translators but to help government workers build confidence crafting short emails in both official languages.

"Over a million uses a week of Google Translate happen in government without government terminology," she told CBC Ottawa's Alan Neal on All In A Day.

"We're sitting on hundreds and thousands and millions of words and phrases that we've already translated. And so what we wanted to do is to provide a tool for comprehension."

The program, called Portage Statistical Machine Translation, was developed over the course of 10 years, said Joel Martin, director of research and development at the NRC's information and communications technologies division.

Translation Bureau a 'test bed'

The program is meant to help Canadian companies market themselves to the world, said Martin, who was also a guest on All In A Day.

Like Google Translate, it uses many examples of English and French sentences to build new, translated sentences, he said. But while Google stores search terms in its servers, Portage offers privacy to private companies who licence it, said Martin.

The Translation Bureau is "an excellent test bed" for the program, Martin said.
Clumsy translations; translator translates "nouvel outil de traduction automatique" to "the new tool machine translation." (CBC)

But the union that represents workers who will be using the tool told CBC News on Wednesday that the quality of translation is not good enough, putting the reputation of the Translation Bureau at risk.

For example, the tool translated its French title, "nouvel outil de traduction automatique," to "the new tool machine translation."

It also translated the idiomatic phrase "It's raining cats and dogs," to "La pluie, les chats et les chiens."

Martin explained that the software can be trained to translate idioms. But he added that a system customized with technical terms from an aviation manual won't be useful for someone who is translating movie reviews, he said.

"If the examples that are fed to Portage don't include 'It's raining cats and dogs,' it won't be able to translate that," he said. "We want to build a tool that will help people do their job."

Listen to the full All In A Day interview here.