The False choice: Bilingualism vs. Open Government (and accountability)

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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Andrew Krzmarzick

I saw a tweet about this post that said, “Don’t let this come to America.”

With the projected rise in Spanish speakers to nearly 40% of the population by 2050, we’re on our way to seeing this challenge here.

If you had establish a policy for a government going forward, what would be the primary tenets?

Eliz G. Tchakarian

I see so many problems with what was posted that I do not know where to begin. I will start with the issue of bilingualism. It is naive to think that this issue has not hit the U.S. It has. Look up the Unz initiative and all the problems with bilingual education in California, Arizona, Colorado and a few other states. The No Child Left Behind Act is also problematic in this sphere because it aimed at concentrating on English and not foreign languages which makes the already inferior U.S. educational system even worse compared to other countries. We are not on our way to seeing this challenge, on the contrary. Politicians are working hard to avoid the public to see that this challenge is here and very real to the U.S.

Morgen, you mention the law. You are right, we have to look into language planning and make sure it is fair to everyone. However, you cannot have any type of language planning without the expertise of linguists and perhaps even a sociolinguists. Individuals who will not only help with the very mechanical problem of translation, but will also make sure to educate others on any socio-political issues that perpetuate prejudice against “the other.”

Finally, isn’t it easier to avoid the “problem” of bilingualism by making sure all of us are at least bilingual?Wouldn’t that eliminate the need for expensive translations and the use of imperfect google translators? If Bilingual Education (that is effective bilingual education) is implemented in school in both, Canada and the U.S. we would not be discussing the issue now or in 2050.

Justin Longo

David, you raise a very interesting question as to what constitutes an adequate translation for the purposes of meeting the requirements of the Official Languages Act. I was especially interested in your claim that “Google translate – especially between French and English – has become shockingly good. Perfect… no. But it keeps getting better.” This runs counter to something a diplomat who attended a recent G20 meeting told me, that online translation was not quite ready for prime time.

So I thought I’d test your claim 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).”

Have a look at where I’ve inserted a recent press release from Environment Canada including both the English and French versions as they were posted on the Environment Canada site. In column 1 is the original English as posted by EC. Now, say they only released that in French … no problem, you say, as I can just run it through Google Translate. So I did that and the result is in column 2. Not bad at all. I can certainly understand what is being communicated. “Not perfect, but serviceable” as you say.

The instances where the translation is problematic are in two respects:

  1. The use of technical terms of art (e.g.; the “national single window system” gets awkwardly rendered as a “national system to stop”) clearly need more work. But I suspect, as you say, Translate should get better over time as it sees these phrases more.
  2. The second problem is more to do with the dirty little secret about federal government communications, in which different messaging is undertaken depending on the language of the audience. Thus, notice how Minister Baird speaks of the “fight against climate change” in column 2 (i.e., this was written in the French version) – something he didn’t say in the original English version. I don’t suspect Minister Baird has ever referred to “the fight against climate change” in either language, but the Department is willing to use that language to target one region of the country (Quebec) and not another (oh, I dunno, Alberta?).

So, in all, I agree with you that Google Translate seems capable of doing an adequate job of translating press releases. And if the objective of the Official Languages Act were only to “give Canadians the right to receive federal government services in either English or French … wherever … the size of the minority population and the nature of the office warrants it”, then I would think that your proposal makes sense. But there are many other objectives of the Act:

  • enhance the development of official language communities;
  • promote linguistic duality;
  • provide for the equal status of both official languages in Parliament and before federal courts;
  • guarantee equal employment and career advancement opportunities in federal institutions for English- and French-speaking Canadians;
  • commit federal institutions to hiring, subject to the merit principle, English- and French-speaking Canadians in numbers that reflect their proportion in the overall Canadian population;
  • give federal government employees the right to work in the official language of their choice in the National Capital Region and in designated regions;
  • commit the federal government to the promotion of English and French in Canadian society;
  • provide Canadians with opportunities to learn both English and French.

So the question then becomes, would a reliance on Google Translate meet the service objective but thwart any of these other objectives? You claim that it “would serve the interests of both open and accountable governments as well as bilingualism” Well it would quickly make redundant the cadre of translators working for the federal government (thus having an employment effect), and eliminate the backlog that exists when you need to get something translated (perhaps supporting the promoting and enhancing objectives). What would be the effect on linguistic duality? I don’t know, but the number of questions such a move would raise makes me think that, if a department, agency or the government itself decided to attempt to meet its service obligations by using Google Translate as the mechanism for achieving compliance with the Official Languages Act, that that decision would ultimately land before the Supreme Court, where it belong, and then they get the entertainment of determining whether that route is adequate AND meets the other requirements of the Act.

P.S.: Coincidence, perhaps, by the RCMP may have removed the unilingual press releases on December 2 because I had been given an advanced copy of the December 14 report of the Official Languages Commissioner – Final Report on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in which they got their wrists slapped for not having enough (if any) bilingual officers at major venues. This rebuke could have been enough for someone from headquarters to get upset about the unilingual press releases in Vancouver.

Justin Longo

I mistakenly wrote that “I had been given an advanced copy of the” Commissioner’s report. I meant to say that maybe the RCMP was given an advance copy. If I had been given an advance copy of the report, I wouldn’t be bragging about it here.