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Machine Translation and Governments: The Case of Canada

April 26, 2016

Justin TrudeauJustin Trudeau, Canada’s new Prime Minister, has been getting a lot of global attention for his refreshing 21st century approach to government. For example when he introduced his gender-balanced cabinet at a press conference and was asked “Why?” his response was simply “It’s 2015.”

A chip off the old block, Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was an iconic and charismatic Canadian prime minister for nearly 16 years (1968-1984). Determined to establish Canada as an unequivocally bilingual country, one of Pierre Trudeau’s first major pieces of legislation was the Official Languages Act. When it came into force in September 1972, Canadians gained the right to receive services from the Federal government in the official language (French or English) of their choice.[1]

Thus was born the Translation Bureau, the government agency responsible for ensuring that information about Federal government services, as well as the services themselves, would be available in both French and English. A 2012 report by the Fraser Institute estimated that the annual price tag for the translations required to comply with the Official Languages Act is about $2.4 billion, of which $1.5 billion is spent by the Federal government and the rest by provinces with large French-speaking populations.[2]

In seeking ways to reduce governmental translation costs, the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada has received Federal government funding over the last ten years to develop a statistical machine translation technology called Portage. According to the NRC website “[t]his technology, given adequate data, can automatically generate new machine translation systems for virtually any pair of languages and any domain of specialization.”

From an open letter[3] dated March 21, 2016 to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement from the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO), we learn that Portage is now being rolled out to federal government employees. But wait — is machine translation good enough for government work? Not according to the ATIO, which expresses “…the view that this initiative poses a serious risk to the effective use of both official languages within the public service, and may have serious repercussions on the Government of Canada’s official language responsibilities toward the public.”

The ATIO acknowledges in the open letter that the tool is intended for only limited informal exchanges and for internal use. They also note that the strings produced by Portage will be revised by language professionals in the Translation Bureau every few months. But they are concerned that once the tool is in the hands of untrained, often uni-lingual, users it will be difficult to constrain its usage and “Canada may well see its reputation for excellence in oral and written communication in both official languages tarnished as a result, both here and abroad.”

With Pierre Trudeau’s son now at the helm, Canada will not be compromising on its commitment to high-quality bilingual government services and information any time soon. But there will certainly be pressure to leverage machine translation to the fullest extent possible to save time and money. If Canada learns how to effectively make MT available to professional translators as a productivity and harmonization tool, it will provide a useful model for other governments around the world that are committed to providing services and information in multiple languages – including the United States.

References

[1] Official Languages Act, Wikipedia
[2] Ilan Mester, Bilingualism Canada: Cost Of French $2.4 Billion Per Year, January 2012
[3] Open letter to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement about machine translation software, March 21, 2016