Microsoft Translator has added Inuktitut, but is that a good thing?
“Any new tool to encourage language use and learning — especially in Inuktitut — is always welcomed,” Karliin Aariak, Nunavut languages commissioner, told Nunatsiaq News, a Canadian newspaper covering Nunavut and Nunavik — areas where Inuktitut is spoken. Inuktitut is an indigenous Inuit language, spoken by around 40,000 people. January 27th, Microsoft announced its rollout across Microsoft Translator, Office, Translator for Bing, Azure Cognitive Services Translator and Azure Cognitive Services Speech. The Government of Nunavut participated in development, providing Microsoft with language data. Native Inuktitut speakers then worked as volunteers, ensuring early translations were correct.
It’s one thing to train a machine translation (MT) engine and quite another to continue improving it. And this, according to comments on Nunatsiaq News, is Inuktitut speakers’ concern. “Unfortunately for Microsoft and its Inuit language users,” posted Nunatsiaq News reader Language authority [sic], “this will probably result in a lot of bickering between interpreter-translators over every single work. It’s a nice feel-good story but we’ve seen tech companies come here time and time again to try and help solve the language issue only to be let down a few years down the road.”
As a language, Inuktitut has regional variances, which has hindered MT efforts in the past. Speakers don’t even agree on what to call the language, using different names depending on where they live. “Ever found a sign or a public announcement that Inuit speakers can agree on?” reader pissed off [sic] asked, “And I am not talking about the deep difference of opinions on syllabic vs. roman calligraphy,” referring to an ongoing debate over how Inuktitut should be written. In choosing roman over syllabic, reader Don’t Hold Your Breath said speakers who use the syllabic system will feel “dominated, ignored and belittled.”
Reader Total opposite [sic] expressed concerns that free online access to Inuktitut will replace true language access— as Microsoft Translator, Google Translate, and similar free MT occasionally have for other languages: “Transients and southerners will be in awe of how they can get access to Inuktitut language services. They’ll use it for 10 minutes then tweet about it for days, praising Microsoft.”