At the time this article was written
Jean-Pierre Ollivier was Chief, Members' Services, Translation Division, House of
Commons. The English version of this article was prepared by Miss D. Burgess of
the Parliamentary Translation Directorate.
This article gives a brief account of
parliamentary translation in Canada, from its early beginnings to the present.
It describes the present structure of the parliamentary translation service and
provides some statistics so as to give an idea of the problems that must be
overcome in the process of upholding the Official Languages Act in a bilingual
Canada. Lastly, it will touch on the special aspects of what is known as
"parliamentary" translation, and the features that make this such an
interesting field in which to work.
Translation in the national legislature
dates from the early years of Confederation, more specifically 187273 when
parliamentary debates were translated by freelancers. This explains why earlier
texts are unilingual. They sit on the shelf awaiting some eager translator
willing to bring to life such famous Canadians as Sir John A. Macdonald or the
Fathers of Confederation.
Not until the turn of the century did the
seven debate translators join the ranks of the public service. While they were
public servants in name, their deportment and attire were that of aristocrats.
Attired in top hats with walking stick in hand, they viewed the translation
process more as an honour and a form of relaxation than a daily grind. In the
meantime, federal departments and agencies, which were not subject to the same
requirements as Parliament, provided very little in the way of translation. In
1913, there were only seven or eight translators scattered throughout the
Following a stormy debate in 1934,
Parliament created the Translation Bureau, placing it under the authority of
the Secretary of State Department. The Bureau grouped together under the
direction of its first superintendant, Mr. Domitien Robichaud, 91 translators,
(including 12 working for Parliament). Translators with the Department of
External Affairs and the Senate did not join the Bureau until 1946 and 1950
With the creation of the Bureau. more
stringent hiring practices were established. Responsibility for recruiting all
translators was assigned to the Public Service Commission. It was no longer
enough to be merely "bilingual" in order to become a translator.
During the Second World War and the ensuing
years, the Bureau experienced its initial period of real growth. In 1948, the
Bureau employed 175 translators. This figure increased gradually to 300 to meet
the ever-growing needs of the federal administration. This growth did not mean,
however, that the Bureau relaxed its hiring standards. In 1947, for example,
only 15 applicants out of a total of 325 passed the Bureau's entrance
New requirements and the astounding increase
in the demand for translation services following the adoption of the Official
Languages Act in 1969 led the Bureau to increase its staff and step up its
recruitment efforts. It even turned to hiring translators from Europe since
Canadian universities were not producing graduates in translation. The
recruitment campaign peaked in 1974 with the hiring of a total of 400 new
The bureau has continued to increase its
staff, which now stands at approximately 1,100 translators. In order to
maintain and improve the quality of its services two important decisions have
been made in the past decade. Firstly, in order to facilitate the translator's
task and to fulfill the mission assigned to it by cabinet in 1974, namely to
standardize vocabulary, the Bureau set up in 1975 a terminology and
documentation service which now employs more than 100 terminologists. Toward
the end of the seventies, the Bureau launched an intensive training and
development program for its translators.
Today, the Canadian government Translation
Bureau is one of, if not the, most important organization of its kind in the
world, both in terms of the volume of words translated and in terms of cultural
Where do parliamentary translators fit into
this broad picture I have just painted of the Translation Bureau? Essentially
two directorates are attached to Parliament: the Interpretation Directorate
with which I will deal only briefly here, and the Parliamentary Translation
Directorate. The Interpretation Directorate employs some 80 interpreters who
provide the simultaneous interpretation for the two Houses of Parliament and
their committees. The Parliamentary Translation Directorate has a total of 75
translators and a support staff of 25 people divided into four specialized
The Debates, the oldest service and the one
most faithful to tradition, is responsible for translating into both official
languages the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament, namely the speeches
delivered by MPs and Senators. It is by no means an easy task, considering that
each member of this service must translate an average of about 4,000 words a
day so that our country's elected officials can receive by 9 a.m. the next day
the printed, bilingual issue of the previous day's proceedings in the Senate
and House of Commons. This daily challenge requires the co-operation not only
of the translators but of numerous other people including stenographers,
printers, clerks, etc.
The remaining work, which is no less
important to the smooth running of our bilingual parliamentary system, is
shared by three sections.
The first, referred to as Parliamentary
Documents, meets the translation needs of the House of Commons Administration
and the Library of Parliament. This section handles a wide variety of texts,
from purely administrative documents to research papers drafted by the Library
of Parliament Research Branch touching on such topics as the economy. law and
current events such as transportation of natural gas, the status of women,
abortion, child abuse and world nickel production.
The second section goes by the name of
Committees Documents. Its translators are basically at the service of House of
Commons committees. They are called upon to translate virtually anything
related to national and international politics. Whether it be finance, law,
budgets, transportation. health. art. computer programming or the constitution,
translators must be prepared to deal with and understand these issues. When a
committee undertakes to study a burning issue, MPs are swamped by briefs from
citizens and associations trying to defend their viewpoint before a piece of
legislation is passed. Everything takes on an air of urgency. In order for
witnesses and committee members to discuss a topic. they need to understand one
another and in Canada, understanding often comes about as a result of the
The third section, Members' Service. is
responsible for meeting the translation needs of MPs and Senators in their
capacity as legislators and representatives of the people, In all, service must
be provided to some 400 officials who are often pressed for time and sometimes
not very understanding of difficulties involved in translating. However this
work enables the translator to gauge public opinion through letters exchanged
between the MP and his constituents, to get a clear picture of the problems
encountered by the elderly or the unemployed, to gain awareness of the
difficulties which arise in relations between citizens and the public service
or to learn how a policy evolves through various studies which have to be
translated. Our clients can rest assured that we are sworn to secrecy.
Some of the most stimulating work is done
for the Parliamentary Relations Secretariat. Canada maintains relations with
many countries and Canadian parliamentary delegations travelling abroad often
require bilingual documentation to make their task an easier one. Our mandate
even extends to organizing the necessary translation services for certain
international conferences of parliamentarians.
The three sections just described share
responsibility for translating the proceedings of the Senate committees. a task
which is generally done in one day at a rate of about 3,500 words per
translator. Although far from easy, this work is somewhat less strenuous since
it involves the spoken language. Judging by the volume of words translated, the
Senate is still very much alive and kicking.
The annual budget for the Parliamentary
Translation Directorate, including staff salaries, totals $3 million. The staff
is divided as follows: 75 professional staff, 13 support staff (typists) and 12
administrative support staff.
In 1981-82, the Directorate translated 21
million words. a total which represents 68 printed volumes each containing 500
pages, at a cost of 14 cents per translated word. This figure does not include
the cost of certain centralized services such as terminology and documentation
which come under another branch of the Bureau.
To compensate for some of the inconveniences
inherent in their job, employees of the Translation Bureau who work for
Parliament receive. in addition to the three or four weeks of annual leave
enjoyed by federal public servants. additional leave credits for overtime. The
number of credits granted is calculated on a pro rata basis according to the
number of days worked by the translator while Parliament was in session. The
leave accumulated in this manner cannot normally be taken while the House is
sitting. which means that when Parliament sits into July or August. or even
uninterrupted until Christmas, as was the case the year of the flag debate in
1964. many problems can arise. Early family vacation and travel plans and
reservations are often out of the question because there is always the
possibility that the translators may have to cancel plans at the last minute.
The new standing orders adopted by the House of Commons in late 1982 should
resolve this problem in part by creating a fixed parliamentary calendar.
The translator must display great physical resistance
at certain times of the year when the pace is hectic since work cannot be put
off until the following day. Absences are not looked upon favourably by
colleagues since they must assume the missing translator's share of the
workload. Availability is also a chief quality of the parliamentary translator
who may, on short notice. be asked to work irregular hours during the evening
or into the night or even on weekends. A few years ago. the debate translators
barely had the time to leave their desks to hastily attend Christmas Eve
festivities with their families.
The work of a parliamentary translator is
extremely varied. covering a broad range of current topics and events.
Translators must be interested in almost ail areas of human endeavour. One of
the most persistent problems they face, particularly after normal working
hours, is that of obtaining the necessary documentation to do a translation.
While translators can rely on excellent library facilities, there is always the
danger of being caught short when a committee asks to have translated a sketch
of the control panel of a Boeing 747 by 9 a.m. the following morning. Yet we
were asked and were able to do just that. although it is unlikely that any
Boeing aircraft pilot will ever use our translation! Because of unforseeable
circumstances, we have even had to translate an international treaty (for
example, on air transportation) which is already available in all of the UN's
official languages simply because it would take too long to obtain a copy of the
document from Montreal. These occasional emergencies make life difficult for
the parliamentary translator, but I do not know of anyone who would willingly
return to a departmental translation section.
To conclude, I would like to call to mind an
often misunderstood old Italian saying Traduttore, traditore, which essentially
means a translator is often an unintentional traitor in that it is sometimes
impossible for him to convey the exact thoughts of the author. Despite this
fact, a translator's profession, indeed his art, is nevertheless essential to
human communications. A computer has not yet succeeded in equalling the
intelligence or creativity of a translator. It is undoubtedly for this reason
that for many years to come, we will continue to acknowledge the discreet,
albeit constant, and effective presence of our translators on Parliament Hill.