News / Ottawa

Canadian translators worry wider access to software will lead to 'hundreds' of job losses

Federal government translators are concerned that a plan to make a machine translation tool available to all public servants would lead to their jobs disappearing.

The translators also worry the tool’s availability would “sully” the federal Translation Bureau’s reputation and lower the quality of internal government communication to the point where it would "trample" on public servants’ language rights.

The concerns are detailed in a letter from the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, which represents about 900 government translators and interpreters.

In the letter to the chief executive of the Translation Bureau — the federal organization responsible for translation — the union says the move could “threaten the survival of the Translation Bureau and of the translation profession itself."

The union's concern is it would lead people to believe computer-only translations are acceptable, resulting in a decline in demand for professional translation services and "ultimately lead to hundreds of job losses."

The union is calling for a formal analysis of the project’s advantages and disadvantages.

Translators themselves already use the tool to speed up the translation process. But, like Google Translate or any other similar tool, the computer translations aren't perfect and require a translator's expertise, CAPE president Emmanuelle Tremblay said in an interview.

Tremblay said the tool is different from Termium Plus, the government’s terminology database, which translates individual terms and is free to any Internet user.

The letter says translators are not opposed to technological advancements, and "will gladly embrace new tools that are effective and produce reliable results." But they are hesitant about this project because of "the worrisome threat of its potentially game-changing impact on the translation profession."

At the translators’ annual meeting in mid-May, people were “completely outraged” at the prospect that the tool would be made widely available, Tremblay said.

Public Works and Government Services Canada, the department which oversees the Translation Bureau, did not provide a comment in response to the letter on Monday.

But on its website, the Translation Bureau says machine translations can be useful to give the reader a general idea of what a document’s about, but not to correctly communicate the information in another language.

“Machine translation systems and language-related technology must be considered tools to help professional translators, not replace them,” the website says.

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