Backlash Against Australia’s Workplace Regulator for Machine Translating Its Website

Fair Work Ombudsman, the Australian government’s workplace regulator, has drawn critical comments from the country’s language industry after launching a multilingual version of their website.

Fair Work is an independent statutory office established on the Fair Work Act in Australia and provides free services to all workers and employers. In addition to enforcing workplace laws, they also provide information and education as well as handle queries and investigate complaints from the public.

As the public authority for workplace laws, Fair Work has a very comprehensive website providing detailed information on employer/employee rights and obligations such as Pay, Leave, Redundancy, Taxes etc., which it has just integrated with Microsoft Translator so that the whole website can be translated into 40 languages.

“We stand firm in the view that implementation of machine translation on such a high profile government website, dealing with workplace rights of Australians is inappropriate and dangerous.” — Costa Vasili, CEO, EthnoLink Language Services

This move initially received positive local media attention with SBS News lauding Fair Work’s effort to go multilingua. The news outlet highlighted how a multilingual website can benefit migrant workers who may speak a different language and are unsure of their rights as workers.

Australia has always been a migrant society and more so in recent decades as the economy boomed. It has an active migration program which saw 183,608 migrants given visas in the assessment year ended June 2017. Of these migrants, 67.3% were given entry based on ‘skilled worker’ visas.

Translations are “Nonsensical”

But good intentions sometimes backfire. The move to rely on machine translation across an important government website immediately drew criticism by some members of Australia’s language industry.

Costa Vasili, CEO of Melbourne-based EthnoLink Language Services, wrote to Slator and said, “The implementation of machine translation on such a high profile Australian Federal Government website is unprecedented and worrying. Predictably, the results of this machine translation are poor and feedback from our professional translators is that for many languages the translation is nonsensical. We stand firm in the view that implementation of machine translation on such a high profile government website, dealing with workplace rights of Australians is inappropriate and dangerous.” Other local translators have voiced similar comments on social media publicly.

Slator reached out to Fair Work for a comment and an official spokesperson defended the use of machine translation as follows:

“Our new website translator enables customers to find and read the full suite of information across our website in their preferred language. The solution we’ve implemented enables us to include a professionally-translated custom dictionary to ensure translated information is contextually accurate. We will continue to refine this based on our customer’s feedback and experiences, to ensure they have the best possible experience and find information they understand and can apply to their situation.”

In addition to machine translation, the spokesperson pointed to the ‘Language Help’ section of the website, which provides professionally translated information and resources in 30 languages, including videos (dubbed in foreign languages) and downloadable files. The public can also call them on a free helpline which includes an interpreting service.

The spokesperson did not respond to our question on why they specifically chose Microsoft Translator.

Misplaced Expectations of MT

This incident is another example of the mistakenly high expectations that non-language professionals sometimes place on machine translation (MT) quality as it stands right now.

While research into machine translation is experiencing an unprecedented boom, MT quality is still nowhere near the level where it could be relied on to translate critical information.

Hat tip to Costa Vasili, CEO, EthnoLink Language Services, for alerting us to this story.