Online translator helps federal workers ‘do their job,’ advocates say

The federal departments behind a translation tool described as “clumsy” defend the software as a way for employees to gain confidence in 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 launches for 350,000 workers across the country on April 1.

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

The tool comes as the office’s workforce has grown from 2,000 to just over 1,300 employees in five years.

Translation Bureau CEO Donna Achimov said the tool is not intended to replace human translators, but to help officials build their confidence in writing short emails in both official languages.

“More than a million weekly uses of Google Translate happen in government without government terminology,” she told CBC Ottawa’s Alan Neal on All in one 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 was provide a tool for understanding.”

The program, called Portage Statistical Machine Translation, was developed over a 10-year period, said Joel Martin, director of research and development in NRC’s Information and Communications Technology Division.

The Translation Bureau a “test bed”

The program is intended to help Canadian companies are marketing themselves to the world, said Martin, who was also a guest All in one day.

Like google Translate, it uses many example sentences in English and French to build new translated sentences, he said. But while Google stores search terms on its servers, Portage offers privacy to private companies that license it, Martin said.

The Translation Bureau is “an excellent test bed” for the program, Martin said.
Clumsy translations; translator translates “new machine translation tool” to “the new machine translation tool”. (Radio Canada)

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

For example, the tool has translated its French title, “new machine translation tool”, into “the new machine translation tool”.

He also translated the idiomatic phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” into “Rain, cats and dogs”.

Martin explained that software can be trained to translate idioms. But he added that a system customized with technical terms taken from an aviation manual would not be useful for someone translating movie reviews, he said.

“If the examples that are provided to Portage do not include ‘I“It’s raining cats and dogs”, that can’t translate that,” he said. “We want to build a tool that will help people do their job.”

Listen to the full All in one day interview here.