Woes of Canada’s Translation Bureau Compounded By Minister’s Response

Reactions ranged from “disappointing” and “lacking” to “insulting,” “shocking” and “jaw-dropping.” The Canadian government, already under fire from several quarters due to, among other things, the downsizing of the Translation Bureau’s workforce, the rollout of its homegrown machine translation tool Portage, and the planned use of a vetting system that favors the lowest-bidding freelancers, is embattled once again.

The heat is specifically directed at the Department of Public Services and Procurement, which oversees the Translation Bureau. The reason, Minister Judy Foote’s response to the recommendations of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages regarding the Translation Bureau, which falls under Foote’s purview.

Foote, the most popular MP candidate in last year’s federal elections, topping it with an 82% landslide, heads the Department of Public Services and Procurement. A Liberal, Foote was sworn into the Cabinet along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November 2015. Supported by, among others, Canada’s labor unions, the Liberal Party won last year’s elections for the first time in nine years by a huge margin.

Describing Foote’s response as not only disappointing but insulting, CAPE, a union of more than 13,000 government employees, said: “We were expecting a response that would address the problems identified by a number of stakeholders regarding the Translation Bureau. Instead, the government’s response insults not only the parliamentarians on the Standing Committee, but also the stakeholders who took the trouble to make thoughtful recommendations.”

The government’s response insults not only the parliamentarians on the Standing Committee, but also the stakeholders—CAPE

A CAPE representative told Slator the government had rejected key recommendations of the House of Commons study; for instance, that the Translation Bureau (TB), as before, handle all translation in the public sector and it be given sufficient financial resources to do so. The representative said CAPE had also pushed for the TB to be transferred to the Department of Canadian Heritage; but the government rejected that recommendation as well.

Foote’s department is said to be the government’s principal banker, purchasing agent, and linguistic authority—the latter having become an issue for stakeholders who believe the procurement department should not be the gatekeeper of Canada’s policy on linguistic duality.

In the government’s response, Foote explained that the Translation Bureau Act as well as Translation Bureau Regulations “provide authority for the important role played by the Bureau.” She went on to say that the Minister of Canadian Heritage “must also develop a new multi-year official languages plan to promote official languages and support the development of Francophone and English speaking minority communities.”

A status quo report that ignores serious problems at the Translation Bureau—AIIC

A statement sent to Slator called Foote’s letter “largely a status quo report that ignores serious problems at the Translation Bureau that are undermining Canada’s official languages ambitions.” The statement was sent by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), which was founded in 1953 and counts among its ranks some 3,000 members from around the world.


Liberal MP Denis Paradis, Chairman of the committee that made the TB recommendations, said they all were “expecting a bit more” from Foote, according to an article in The Hill Times.

A member of the committee, Conservative MP John Nater, concurred, calling Foote’s response “lacking”; while New Democratic Party MP François Choquette called it “shocking” and “disappointing” in the same article.

A rather superficial response to a rather in-depth study—MP François Choquette

“It’s jaw-dropping. It’s like they have a gross disregard for the fine work done by the committee,” Choquette told the Canadian newspaper, adding, “It was a rather superficial response to a rather in-depth study we undertook.”

Choquette had made the motion (passed unanimously) for Foote to appear before the committee, but said the Minister failed to respond. Among the concerns the MP said Foote failed to address was the TB’s capability to attract and keep highly skilled translators. He pointed out the Committee on Official Languages had asked for more funds for the Translation Bureau, which has been “losing expertise, [because] they are not hiring anymore.”

This loss of expertise is another major concern. The CAPE representative told Slator that, with the way the TB is currently set up, “it is much more difficult to develop that expertise and translators have to do it on the job.”

CAPE blames the loss of expertise on the reorganization of the TB into affinity groups.

Of phantoms and affinities

CAPE, which stands for the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, figured prominently in several House of Commons deliberations on the Translation Bureau. Among the issues brought up by CAPE was the presence of “affinity groups” within the Translation Bureau (TB) and the use of so-called “Phantom TRs.”

At the committee meeting, CAPE VP André Picotte said the TB was “reorganized into affinity groups” to “save money.” Picotte, who works at the TB, said that while before, TB translators working with, say, the Department of National Defense, were able to develop their expertise on that subject matter, it is no longer the case. Today, the TB has grouped various departments under affinity groups, where translators no longer specialize in certain fields but handle various topics.

Departments are creating phantom TR positions. They do not call them TRs; they go by other names, such as language quality advisors—CAPE VP André Picotte in the House of Commons

The CAPE representative told us that, previously, specialization had given translators the great advantage of allowing them to develop their expertise along certain fields. “This gave them the vocabulary specific to these fields and enabled them to work faster and with more accuracy. By forcing them into affinity groups, this advantage disappeared and translators had to deal with more translations from greater fields and different topics,” the CAPE spokesperson added.

Regarding the issue of Phantom TRs—“discount translators” who “go by other names, such as language quality advisors” said Picotte to the committee—the CAPE spokesperson said that using an “in-house translation capacity is against the policies established by the Treasury Board: the Translation Bureau is the only authorized entity that has the right to provide translation services to the departments. Departments had the choice of [either] going to the Bureau or to the private sector.”

In his statement to the committee, Picotte pointed out that the Treasury Board gives the TB the monopoly on translation for the federal government. “Essentially, departments have been told to either go to the private sector or to use the Translation Bureau, but not to create independent departmental translation services,” he said.

The CAPE spokesperson said they know that, in many instances, “the people tasked to translate internal department documents are not bonafide translators,” and neither have the training nor the experience, adding that “the result of their work varies and is a disservice to the people who are at the receiving end of the translated documents.”

The Translation Bureau had ceased hiring since 2011, which led to a loss of 33–34% among translators on staff—CAPE

CAPE testified before the House of Commons that the TB had ceased hiring since 2011, which led to a loss of 33–34% among TB translators on staff. The labor union further said that four or five years ago, the TB had over 1,200 translator posts, compared to some 800 at present; a downward trend that, they said, continues.

A year ago, CAPE said it would, if need be, remind the Treasury Board President of the Liberal Party’s commitment to the public service. Asked if they had communicated the Phantom-TR violation to the Treasury Board, the CAPE representative replied, “We have informed the Standing Committee on Official Languages about this during our presentation and we intend to discuss this issue in our coming meetings with the Public Works minister.”


So how did the saga begin? According to CAPE, a House of Commons investigation was launched after the TB released the machine translation tool Portage, which faced criticism on several fronts.

On February 22, 2016, MP Greg Fergus made a motion inviting Translation Bureau CEO Donna Achimov “to appear as part of a study on the mandate and the delivery of services of this public institution” and that the study should last from three to five Committee meetings.

Achimov did appear before the committee on March 7, 2016, but was there to speak of her bureau’s mandate apropos Canada’s Roadmap for Official Languages.

CAPE will be requesting meetings with Minister Foote and members of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Languages to put pressure on them to revisit their decision

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages presented its Translation Bureau report on June 15, 2016; and Minister Judy Foote presented the Government’s response on October 17, 2016.

Achimov, who presided over the TB’s tumultuous period, has since left her post as CEO but remains with the TB as head of its personnel unit.

We asked CAPE what their next step will be given the government’s response. Their representative said they will request meetings with Ministers Foote (Public Works) and Mélanie Joly (Heritage), as well as members of the House Committee on Official Languages (i.e., Choquette, Paradis, and Fergus) “to put pressure on them to revisit their decision.”

Slator reached out to the Translation Bureau for this story and was told to expect a response middle of next week. We will continue to follow the issue.

Image: Minister Judy Foote