Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Machine Translation Comes of Age in Canada

The law in Canada requires that all Federal Government documents written in one of the two official languages (English or French) be translated into the other one. That means millions of words of translation year in year out. For five decades the Government of Canada has been seeking ways to speed up the work and reduce its cost by using computers. I know because I worked on the National Research Council of Canada's first attempt at machine translation (MT) way back in 1966. There has been one outstanding success, the METEO system for translating weather bulletins, but it has very limited application.

Now the spread of MT software like Google Translate and Bing Translate and the improvement in their quality are obliging the Government of Canada Translation Bureau to take a leap forward or be made partly redundant. According to the Bureau's CEO, Donna Achimov (see photo), government employees log over a million uses of Google Translate each week. A proprietary MT system called Portage is scheduled to be made available to 350,000 Federal Government employees on April 1. A pilot version is being tested, not without criticism.

Of course the human translators are up in arms, worried ostensibly about the quality of the translations but in reality more about losing their jobs. The professional association to which I belong, the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO), has written to its members asking them to make their feelings known to the minister responsible. Here's how I have responded.
Machine translation (MT), for all its many imperfections, is here to stay. Rejecting it is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. If public servants are not allowed to use the Translation Bureau's MT device they will simply turn to Google or Bing Translate, which are available for free. They are already doing so right now. Indeed one wonders why the Bureau is going to the expense of developing its own system when the ones just mentioned could be adopted and improved for less.

That said, there are real dangers in people using MT who do not understand its limitations and who are not themselves bilingual. You just have to try using the current systems to see their shortcomings - hence the complaints that have already been received. The state of Maharashtra in India has barred employees from using Google Translate in the wake of of an embarrassing Marathi mistranslation it caused them of a circular for imposing sedition charges (see References). So caveat emptor! ATIO should press for some precautions:

1. MT translations should always be headed by a notice, "To save time and expense, the following translation has been produced by computer and is not guaranteed against meaning errors or poor language. If you have any queries, complaints or suggestions, please contact Client Services of the Government of Canada Translation Bureau at [email address] or [phone]."

2. The official who commissions or produces the translation should accept responsibility for it by signing a docket to that effect and filing it

These precautions would IMHO make users think and have more effect than would opposition, Certainly more effect than protesting that some translators will lose their jobs (which is no doubt what the government would like). At least some of the displaced translators would find new work as consultants and correctors.
Marion Marking. Cats and dogs trigger machine translation row in Canada. Slator, 8 February 2016.

Faizal Malik. Maharashtra govt bars employees from using Google Translate. Hindustan Times, 14 December 2015.

Donna Achimov, CEO of the Government of Canada Translation Bureau

Why Portage? Canadians think of it as a Canadian word, coined first in French from porter meaning to carry and then borrowed (with a slight change of pronunciation) into Canadian English. The fact is the word has been around in English for centuries, but it may be necessary to explain it for modern readers. In Canada it means the old practice of carrying canoes and their loads across a land barrier between two rivers or lakes. Hence it is a metaphor for overcoming the barrier between two languages.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.


  1. This is a very interesting topic; I think your response was measured and well worded.There are many other professions that are changing their production and delivery of services radically (law comes to mind); in the end, there is no replacing that nuanced advice that comes from live people.
    However, attempts at "holding back the tide" are bound to lead to problems. Machine translation is by no means new, and the outcry based on a minister being 'unable to understand' official language issues because she is an anglophone is just incredible.
    This sort of commentary seems to then come from a political place as opposed to a pragmatic or even job conservation perspective; though I suppose the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
    In fact, many jobs will potentially be saved, as there are many people who cannot (via disability) achieve the "bilingual imperative" status that is almost universal within the public service. Also, it would be ideal if the government generally ceased interdepartmental billing-each-other shell games; this would definitely lead to more items being SENT to the Bureau, instead of finding any possible way to cut costs there would be an emphasis on quality.
    Ideally there would be room for everyone at the translation table, but I suppose , like Communism, what might seem good in theory often doesn't work in practice.

    1. Prompted by your comment, for which I thank you, I've been reading the proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Languages, and it's clear that the objections faced by MT in Canada are not purely linguistic, they are also social and political. That's Canada, n'est-ce pas? Leaving the minister aside, it's true that Canadian Anglophones IN GENERAL are insensitive to the language feelings of Francophones. But for more in defence of MT, enter "purpose" in my Search box and select the post "Fit for Purpose".

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