Last week a disturbing headline crossed my computer screen:
B.C. RCMP zaps old news releases from its website
2,500 releases deleted because they weren’t translated into French
1) The worse of all possible outcomes
This is a terrible outcome for accountability and open government. When we erase history we diminish accountability and erode our capacity to learn. As of today, Canadians have a poorer sense of what the RCMP has stood for, what is has claimed and what it has tried to do in British Columbia.
Consider this. The Vancouver Airport is a bilingual designated detachment. As of today, all press releases that were not translated were pulled down. This means that any press release related to the national scandal that erupted after Robert Dziekański – the polish immigrant who was tasered five times by the (RCMP) – is now no longer online. Given the shockingly poor performance the RCMP had in managing (and telling the truth about) this issue – this concerns me.
Indeed, I can’t think that anyone thinks this is a good idea.
The BC RCMP does not appear to think it is a good idea. Consider their press officer’s line: “We didn’t have a choice, we weren’t compliant.”
I don’t think there are any BC residents who believe they are better served by this policy.
Nor do I think my fellow francophone citizens believe they are better served by this decision. Now no one – either francophone or anglophone can find these press releases online. (more on this)
I would be appalled if a similar outcome occurred in Quebec or a francophone community in Manitoba. If the RCMP pulled down all French press releases because they didn’t happen to have English translations? I’d be outraged – even if I didn’t speak French.
That’s because the one thing worse than not having the document in both official languages, is not having access to the document at all. (And having it hidden in some binder in a barracks that I have to call or visit doesn’t event hit of being accessible in the 21st century).
Indeed, I’m willing to bet almost anything that Graham Fraser, the Official Languages Commissioner – who is himself a former journalist – would be deeply troubled by this decision.
2) Guided by Yesterday, Not Preparing for Tomorrow
Of course, what should really anger the Official Languages Commissioner is an attempt to pit open and accountable government against bilingualism. This is a false choice.
I suspect that the current narrative in government is that translating these documents is too expensive. If one relies on government translators, this is probably true. The point is, we no longer have to.
My friend and colleague Luke C. pinged me after I tweeted this story saying “I’d help them automate translating those news releases into french using myGengo. Would be easy.”
Yes, mygengo would make it cheap 5 cents a word (or 15 if you really want to overkill it). But even smarter would be to approach google. Google translate – especially between French and English – has become shockingly good. Perfect… no. But it keeps getting better – and, indeed, it gets better still the more things they translate. If the Canadian government started putting more documents through Google translate and correcting them it would become still more accurate. The best part is… it’s free. I’m willing to bet that if you ran all 2500 of the press releases through Google translate right now… 99% of them would come out legible and of a standard that would be good enough to share. (again, not perfect, but serviceable).
The point here is that this decision reaffirms a false binary: one based on a 20th century assumptions where translations were expensive and laborious. It holds us back and makes our government less effective. But worse, it ignores making a choice that would embrace a world of possibilities – the reality of tomorrow. By starting to automatically translate these documents today we’d learn how to use this technology now, and push it to get better faster. Such a choice would serve the interests of both open and accountable governments as well as bilingualism.
Sadly, no one at the RCMP – or in the federal government – appears to have that vision. So today we are a little more language, information and government poor.
(As an aside I find it fascinating that the media can get mailed a press release that isn’t translated but the public is not allowed to access it on a website until it is – this is a really interesting form of discrimination, one that supports a specific business model and has zero grounding in the law, and indeed may even be illegal given that the media has no special status in Canadian law.)
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