The Canadian Federal Translation Bureau

The imposingly somber building that houses the offices of the Canadian Federal Translation Bureau seems drearier still on a windy, sunless late-February day. It looks up out of a bleak landscape — autobody shops, a strip mal, a bowling alley — euphemistically termed “mixed-use” by real estate agents.

A uniformed security guard screens visitors, checks photo IDs against an appointment list and issues stick-on name tags. Located in Gatineau, a twenty-minute cab ride from Ottawa, the Translation Bureau is far from the chic shopping districts, sweeping lawns and elegant neo-gothic towers of Parliament Hill where the work of the federal government of Canada takes place. Translating the work of government occupies the Bureau.

Canada is among the minority of nation-states that officially recognizes more than one language. Laws recognizing and/or requiring the use of both official languages, English and French, have been on the books since the nineteenth century, but the most far-reaching and radical policy measures followed the publication of the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism

and Biculturalism. The work of the Commission, also known as the Laurendeau-Dunton report, spanned several years (1963-1970) and led to the first Official Languages Act in 1969. Canada’s federal language policy figures in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and was further expanded and refined in 1988 by the Offcial Languages Act. The Canadian Heritage site ( pdp-hrp/canada/freedom_e.cfm) neatly sums up the objective of the Charter: “The Charter is founded on the rule of law and entrenches in the Constitution of Canada the rights and freedoms Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society.” While technically a strictly provincial law, Québec’s Bill 101 has also had a significant impact on language policy in Canada.

Somewhat surprisingly then, the founding of the Translation Bureau predates by over 20 years most of this legislation. Donald Barabé, the vice-president, professional services, proudly notes that the Translation Bureau, created in 1934, is “one of the oldest government institutions.” Originally under the direction of the Secretary of the State, the Bureau now answers to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.


Centralizing translation services

Prior to the creation of the Bureau, translation services were “decentralized, scattered all across the public service,” according to Barabe. Centralizing services was the initial goal of the Translation Bureau Act, a goal that was met with stiff opposi-tion. In response to that opposition, one of the first undertakings of the newly-created Bureau was to “establish translation units within the departments.” That model remains the same today.

“We have translation units from small to big to very big within government departments,” Barabé says. In all, there are 61 units, 30 located in proximity to the federal government in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, the rest throughout Canada. The units are organized according to subject competence, unlike the translation services of the European Union, for example, which is organized by language. Barabé cites the Ministry of Health and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as examples of the Bureau’s subject-centric organization.

The Bureau employs roughly 1,800 in-house language professionals that include translators, revisers, terminologists and interpreters. Between 35% and 40% of the work is outsourced to 2,000 suppliers, a resource pool that includes independent freelancers as well as small and medium-sized businesses. Currently, the number of freelancers heavily outweighs the number of businesses providing services to the Bureau. While Barab values the indepen-dents, he thinks a more balanced service offering would aid in job creation, increase cost-saving efficiencies and, overall, be more economically sustainable.

The Bureau’s mandate to provide language services to the federal government determines the language mix. As a result, the official language pair of English and French represents fully 93% of the work volume. 100 language combinations, combinations which change from year to year, make up the other 5%. “For example, the

last census was translated into 64 languages,” Barabé says, to ensure that Statistics Canada, the federal polling agency, collected the proper information. Twenty of those languages were aboriginal.

Immigration trends also influence the language composition of the work. Barabe notes that sometimes the task of communicating with new immigration groups requires that content be localized but “in a weird way.” “Explaining Canada and Canadian realities to certain language groups” can represent a significant challenge because truly analogous concepts may not exist in other languages.


What world languages are important?

Geopolitics and foreign policy also have an impact on the demand for language pairs. For example, due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Spanish is hot. Russian, an important language during the Cold War era, has lost ground. With over 2,500 Canadian troops and military advisors committed to operations in Afghanistan, Arabic has risen in importance. The liberalization of markets in the People’s Republic of China and an aggressive policy to build relations with the emerging economic tiger combine to push Chinese onto the list of top languages. Barabé declines to comment on how language resources for sensitive languages are recruited.

Because government documentation frequently contains sensitive content, all of the Bureau’s language professionals, in-house and contractors, must pass a baseline security clearance. Higher clearance levels may be required for those working on texts related to more highly classified matters.

Before receiving even the baseline security clearance, however, in-house language professionals must meet rigorous training criteria which include an undergraduate degree in translation. Many of the Bureau’s translators also have a second subject-specific specialty. Barabé notes that the Bureau’s insistence on a bachelor’s degree in translation stems from a concern about mother tongue competence, a concern, he says, that is shared throughout the West. “It’s impossible,” he says, “to train as a translator someone who cannot write. We see people who don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb.”

In addition to language competency, language professionals at the Bureau will now need to master a computer-aided translation tool. After a bidding process open to tool providers worldwide, in keeping with World Trade Organization and NAFTA rules, the Canadian company MultiCorpora won the contract. The implementation of MultiTrans 4 across the organization requires the development and application of new processes, and represents a dramatic shift in approach. “It is a big, big, big cultural change for us,” Barabé says. He admits that the new technology has met with some resistance.

Historically, the Bureau has taken a particular interest in the education as well as the “professionalization” of the translators. With the passage of the Official Languages Act in 1969, translation of federal documentation became mandatory and created a high demand for qualified language professionals. Heightened demand led to the creation of university-level programs in translation. For its part, the Bureau introduced a scholarship program, and Barabé won a Bureau scholarship.

“It was great!” he says. “Your university tuition was paid, all your books, you were paid a salary as a civic servant, pension-able, and you had a job and a summer job. It was incredible. It created twelve programs.” As the demand created by the legislation was finally met, the funds dried up. The scholarship program was progressively phased out and finally terminated in 1982.

Barabé would like to see renewed funding for scholarships, not on the same scale perhaps and not designed to attract translators to the Bureau, but to bolster the profession. “We think the profession needs it,” he says. Barabe would like to see the private sector step up and support such an initiative. Because the Bureau is no longer in a position to offer the same employment guarantee as was provided in the past, Barabé would like to see private companies “signing on” to provide the employment piece of any scholarship program. In general, he sees a fundamental need for the language industry to “take care of its youth.”

Aside from exerting an influence on translator education and professional training, over the years the Bureau has also given voice to a sector that by all accounts suffers from a chronic lack of visibility. According to some, however, the

visibility of the Bureau does not always favor public sector providers. Some critics go farther. They believe that the Bureau has outlived its usefulness and that drastically reducing the size of the Bureau and the scope of its mandate would level the playing field for the struggling private sector. In the March 2007 issue of MultiLingual (#86), Larry Rogers, director of Lexi-tech Inter-national, eloquently detailed the sector’s difficulties in a Perspectives column.

Barabé is aware of the criticism. He is confident, however, that the Bureau serves a fundamental purpose that could not be assumed by private sector provid-ers. First, he stresses the sensitivity of the government documents. “Think about it. It’s government. Do you really think that government stuff is going to be put out on the street freely like this? I think it’s unrealistic.”


The Bureau’s strengths

Beyond security issues, Barabé asserts that the Bureau offers quality and capac-ity, two critical strengths. The Bureau’s strict vetting criteria surpass those in the private sector. The Bureau also has a critical mass of human resources. Barabé describes the NAFTA negotiations, which vividly illustrate the muscle the Bureau can bring to bear.

Barabé headed up the team of 200 language professionals called into service to handle the extraordinary work volume created by NAFTA. During the negotiations, all of the documentation was classified. The team was asked to translate 1,200 pages of English text into French in 48 hours. They turned it around in 43 hours. That kind of performance, he says, demonstrates the advantage of a centralized bureau.

As for criticism that the existence of the Bureau distorts the private sector market, Barabé heaves a big sigh. He focuses on in-house salaries, which he sees as a potential irritant. Pay rates, he asserted, are an aspect of the Bureau’s business model over which it has no control. The Treasury Board establishes compensation rates. He adds that, like all civil servants, Bureau employees belong to a union, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, and, although Barabé has a seat at the negotiating table, he has no say in the outcome of the negotiations.


A new economic model

In 1995, the Bureau’s monopoly ended, and a full-cost recovery model was adopted, an event that Barabé terms a revolution and the effects of which are still felt today.

One result was that the organization’s lack of control over salaries became a significant challenge because, logically, higher salaries translate into higher prices for Bureau services. In terms of pricing, Barabé notes that the private sector has a “huge” advantage. “If they can’t come into this market,” he says, “it’s because of something else.” He adds, “We’re not in competition. We’re a government institu-tion, first. Second, we’re an employer.

Third, we’re a client.”

To clarify the Bureau’s non-compete stance, Barab noted that if a government department puts a project out to bid to the private sector, the Bureau automatically does not bid. “As a matter of prin-ciple, we are not allowed and we do not allow ourselves to bid,” he says. “If they want to deal with us, they [government departments] know how to reach us.” In addition, once a bid is opened to the public, the Bureau maintains a strictly hands-off policy. The Bureau does not evaluate offers or private sector suppli-ers. “We don’t broker,” he says.

Barabé offered some additional insight into the bidding process. For instance, in addition to providing language services for the Canadian government, the Bureau may be asked to provide services to other governments and international organizations.

In February 2006, conservative Stephen Harper was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Canada to lead a minority government. When asked if the election of Prime Minister Harper, who is viewed as a champion of free-trade principles including privatization, might result in changes at the Bureau, Barab firmly states that no changes are on the horizon. He adds that since 1984, the Bureau has been through roughly 13 program reviews. The question, he says, remains the same: “Is it government business to do translation?

The answer has always been yes. And that’s why we’re still here.”