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From Science Fiction to Reality: Representations of machine translation in the Canadian press

Ever since the early days of machine translation, when a system allegedly translated the expression “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into the Russian equivalent of “the vodka is good but the meat is rotten,” machine translation has been a source of entertainment. But when the Translation Bureau tried to introduce the use of machine translation into the everyday work environment of Canada’s civil service, it turned out to be no laughing matter.

By Lynne Bowker, Certified Translator (ATIO)

Good for a laugh

Given that Canada has two official languages, it is not surprising that machine translation is a subject that comes up from time to time in the Canadian press. News reports on machine translation often invoke science fiction with references to Star Trek’s universal translator, the babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the translation circuit in Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Typically presented in a tone that is both amused and amusing, these press articles often mock the errors produced by machine translation systems when they are used to translate poetry, Christmas carols, fortune cookies, or regional or idiomatic expressions. A search in the archives of two Canadian press databases (Canadian Major Dailies in English and Eureka.cc in French) reveals that between 1990 and 2015, translation technologies were the subject of 44 articles in English-language newspapers, and 70 articles in the French-language press. The headlines hint at stories full of humorous examples in both official languages, such as “Computers can’t tell avocadoes from lawyers,” « Fabriqué en Dinde », “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Translation,” « Pourquoi le Suédois voit-il une vache sur la glace ? » and “Ich bin una parfait bilingual,” to name but a few. It would seem that for a quarter-century, Canadian readers were regularly treated to snippets of hilarity in the press thanks to machine translation systems!

All joking aside

In 2016, the trend looked set to continue in the English press, with a lone article appearing entitled “Translation software can yield laughable results.” However, a rather different picture began to emerge in the French press, where a significant change occurred in both the number of articles and the attitudes of their authors. In 2016 alone, 51 articles (totalling 21,961 words) written by 14 different authors were published in three different French-language newspapers (Le Devoir, Le Droit, and Acadie Nouvelle), versus a total of 70 articles published in the previous 25 years. Gone were the humorous one-liners and amusing science-fiction references; the articles from 2016 were topped by more ominous-sounding headlines, such as « La traduction à Ottawa : de l'anarchie à la chienlit », « La “machine à traduction” sème l'inquiétude », « Un affront à l'égalité des langues officielles », « Traduction : un outil du fédéral connaît des ratés », « Ce français qui dérange », « Un précédent inquiétant », « Croc-en-jambe » …

But what happened to cause such an about face in the French-language press? In brief, what had previously seemed to be the realm of science fiction threatened to transform into stark reality when the Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau announced its intention to make a machine translation tool available to all federal public servants beginning on April 1, 2016. The tool, called Portage, is a machine translation system developed by the National Research Council of Canada. According to the Translation Bureau, the idea was to enable civil servants to use the tool as a means of improving their language comprehension and to translate short internal and non-official communications. The tool was not intended to translate materials for official or external distribution.

Cause for concern?

An analysis of the 51 articles from the French-language press in 2016 showed that some senior administrators from the Translation Bureau, as well as members of the Language Technologies Research Centre, were supportive of the initiative. On the other side, five different groups expressed strong opposition to the proposed introduction of Portage: 

  • a union representing 850 federal employees; 
  • four professional associations from the language industry (OTTIAQ, ATIO, CTINB, AIIC1);
  • three Francophone advocacy groups (Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, Impératif français, and Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick);
  • six elected members of parliament from three different political parties (Liberal, New Democratic Party and Parti Québécois) who represented four ridings in Québec, one in Ottawa and one in Alberta; and
  • five university professors from two different universities (Université d’Ottawa and Université de Moncton). 

Among the objections voiced by the critics, there are three main ways in which machine translation is viewed as a threat: 

  • to the jobs and professional status of translators;
  • to the linguistic quality of communications;
  • to the rights of public servants under the Official Languages Act (1988).

In principle, these issues could apply to both French-English and English-French translation; however, this subject did not attract any media coverage in the English-language press. Why did the two language communities react so differently to this news? To understand this, it is necessary to take into account what it means to be part of an official language minority community in Canada, and more specifically within the federal government. 

Translation in an official language minority community

One of the stated purposes of the Official Languages Act (1988) is to “ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions.” Within the federal government, the vast majority of translation takes place from English into French, meaning that, in this setting, French is primarily a language of translation rather than one of original production. If the quality of some of the relatively few English language translations in the government is poor, the impact of such texts on English in general will be minimal. In contrast, poor quality translations into French pose a greater risk of harming overall communications in this language. So, using machine translation could exacerbate the asymmetry that exists between French and English within the public service. In addition, the articles in the French press argued that if the quality of internal communications within the government was lowered through the use of machine translation, Francophone civil servants could be disadvantaged and even see their linguistic rights trampled by being offered approximate translations or distorted texts. Moreover, opponents of the proposal to introduce Portage argued that it was naïve to think that the use of machine translation would be limited to internal communications, and they worried that its introduction would be a slippery slope toward “good enough” quality French-language texts. Finally, while it is currently a requirement to be competent in both English and French in order to obtain a management position within the federal civil service, there was concern that the introduction of Portage would relieve candidates, and primarily Anglophones, of the need to develop competence in their second official language.

The power of the press

The press is a particularly visible and influential forum in which the voices, opinions and attitudes of a civil society are expressed. As a result of the public reaction, the Translation Bureau pushed back the launch date of the tool to November 2016 so that the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages could organize more extensive public consultations on the issue. When the tool was eventually introduced for use in the public service, it had been rebranded as a “comprehension tool” rather than a machine translation tool. 

As for the press coverage of machine translation in Canada, it has gone on to find new life as part of the ongoing broader debates about artificial intelligence now that neural machine translation (NMT) – an approach based on the use of artificial neural networks and machine learning – has emerged as a promising new approach. So it seems that we are heading back into the realm of science fiction, only now we are swapping references to Star Trek’s universal translator for references to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey


  1. Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec; Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario; Corporation of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters of New Brunswick; International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Lynne Bowker is a Full Professor at the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa, where her teaching and research interests include translation technologies and scientific and technical translation. 





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