For the better part of the last century, the number of monolingual French speakers in Canada has been slightly declining — during that same timeframe, rates of bilingualism have been steadily rising among the country’s historically French-speaking communities, as English maintains an economic and social stronghold throughout the country.
There was, however, a brief period between the 1930s and 40s during which the rates of monolingual French speakers was actually on the rise. Coincidentally, the federal government of Canada created the nation’s Translation Bureau right around the same time. The purpose of developing the Translation Bureau? Well, to improve language access services for the country’s then-growing population of monolingual French speakers.
According to the Canadian Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the government’s various departments had varied and inconsistent procedures for translating official communications into French, if they had any at all. At the time, activists throughout the country had been pressing the government to make federal services more accessible to the country’s French-speaking population. And so, in 1934, the Translation Bureau was born — albeit not without controversy. The government tasked the Translation Bureau’s officials with standardizing and improving translation services across all of the federal government’s departments.
The bureau’s first leader was Domitien Robichaud, who had previously been the head of the Association Canadienne-Française d’Éducation de l’Ontario (French-Canadian Association of Education of Ontario), an organization advocating for the linguistic and social rights of French-Canadians. Nearly nine decades later, MultiLingual sat down with the current leader of the organization, Lucie Séguin, the Translation Bureau’s CEO, to talk a bit about her position, the history of the bureau, and the bureau’s recent efforts to shine some light on the nation’s indigenous languages and to modernize the scope of the bureau’s goals and procedures.
“My key focus is to continue to position the bureau as a center of excellence in linguistic services for the government of Canada and as a leader in adopting artificial intelligence (AI) while ensuring language quality,” Séguin said.
Since becoming the CEO of the bureau, Séguin said she aims to continue modernizing the bureau’s protocol in an effort to maintain its status as a leader in the Canadian language industry. She stepped into the role in 2019 after serving more than three years as the bureau’s vice president of corporate services.
In that role, she said she worked with the then-CEO to devise a more modern vision of the Translation Bureau, while she also worked with stakeholders in the industry to develop new contractual instruments that would ensure the development of first-rate translation and interpretation services.
“I oversee all the translation, interpretation, and terminology services that the bureau provides — in both official languages, more than 100 indigenous and foreign languages, and signed languages — to federal government departments and agencies as well as to the Canadian Parliament.”
When the Translation Bureau was first created in 1934, Séguin said its main goal was to ensure that official government communications could be released simultaneously in both English and French — since then, she noted that the bureau has come a long way, evolving into a multifaceted organization that is paramount to the success of the country’s language access services. “Today, the Translation Bureau is the Government of Canada’s center of excellence in linguistic services — translation, interpretation, and terminology,” she said.
“Each year, the Translation Bureau’s 1,200 employees deliver thousands of days of interpretation and mil-lions of translated words to departments, agencies and Parliament,” Séguin said.
Today, the Translation Bureau is the single largest provider of work in the Canadian language industry, Séguin said — according to a 2018 report from Price-waterhouseCoopers (which was commissioned by the bureau), about 14% of all work done in the Canadian language industry is derived from the bureau itself. Séguin said that the bureau outsources about 45% of its business volume.
Translations between French and English are the most frequently requested language pairs, however Séguin said that translations between Spanish and English and Inuktitut and English are also quite frequently requested. Since the Canadian government adopted the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019, the Translation Bureau has been more involved in translations regarding indigenous languages like Inuktitut.
“Under the Translation Bureau Act, the Translation Bureau has a duty to collaborate with federal institutions in all matters relating to translation, interpretation, and terminology,” Séguin said. “Since section 11 of the Indigenous Languages Act provides that a federal institution may have its documents translated and its events interpreted into an indigenous language, the Translation Bureau was mandated to increase the availability of translation and interpretation services in First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages.”
Still, Séguin said that the Translation Bureau has been accustomed to working with indigenous languages — they’ve been providing interpretation services for Inuktitut speakers since 2008. The Indigenous Languages Act did increase demand for translations and interpreting services in languages like Inuktitut. As a result, the Translation Bureau had to boost its recruitment efforts following the act’s passage.
“Providing linguistic services in Indigenous languages was not something new for the Translation Bureau,” she said. “Yet the increased demand posed a challenge: the Bureau does not have in-house indigenous translators and interpreters, and since a large number of the approximately 90 different Indigenous languages in Canada have few fluent speakers, the number of qualified service providers is limited.”
In order to step up the bureau’s recruitment efforts and meet the increased demand for services in indigenous languages, Séguin said it has reached out to indigenous communities throughout the country, as well as universities and other institutions that offered programs in indigenous languages. The bureau also held workshops that served to educate speakers of indigenous languages on the bureau’s work and get a better idea of the procedures and requirements involved in providing translation and interpreting services to the Canadian Parliament.
As a result of these efforts, the bureau was able to form professional relationships with more than 100 freelance translators and interpreters. This diverse pool of freelancers has enabled the bureau to more freely provide services in more than 50 different indigenous languages spoken all across the nation.
“This helped the bureau reach a number of historic mile-stones. Among other things, it translated Canada’s new Food Guide into nine indigenous languages,” Séguin said. “In January 2019, the bureau provided simultaneous interpretation, in English and French, of a Plains Cree speech that Robert-Falcon Ouellette delivered in the House of Commons. And in October 2019, the bureau provided indigenous language interpretation of the leaders’ debates during the federal election campaign.”
And when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Séguin said the bureau was prepared to translate various public health information into indigenous languages. This is certainly a commendable feat. Across the border, in the United States, the federal government has yet to adopt a similarly efficient and centralized approach to translating public health information into indigenous languages. This in spite of the fact that numerous politicians throughout the country have expressed support for providing enhanced language access services during the pandemic. For example, as this magazine issue goes to print, the COVID-19 Language Access Act has yet to be voted on in Congress, despite being introduced to the House in February of 2021.
The bureau also continues to support indigenous languages throughout the country through a number of different initiatives, Séguin said. “The bureau established a collaborative agreement with Glendon College in Toronto to support the promotion of Indigenous languages and cultures through capacity building in translation, transcription, and interpretation in indigenous languages and by contributing to the training of the next generation of indigenous interpreters,” she said.
“In addition, through the Language Portal of Canada, a website that gives Canadians of all ages access to free language resources to help them study, work, and communicate more effectively in both English and French and learn more about Indigenous and signed languages, the Translation Bureau shares activities and resources about Indigenous peoples and the revitalization of Indigenous languages,” Séguin said.
Looking to the future, Séguin is working with her team at the bureau to explore the shifting landscape of the language industry. This evolution has been catalyzed by the development of neural machine translation (NMT) technologies. “AI is most certainly changing the rules of the game for translators,” she said. “Given that millions of words in need of translation are being generated every day, some automation is clearly necessary to help the limited number of human translators.”
However, Séguin is confident that human translators will always be in demand. Although some people may argue that NMT and other machine learning technologies could one day become so efficient as to make human translators obsolete, Séguin believes that this kind of talk is little more than back-ground noise.
“AI will never completely erase the need for language professionals to ensure the quality of translations,” Séguin said. “And in Canada, equal quality in both official languages is not an option — it is a right.”