Virtual debates in Parliament | French “takes it for his cold”

Virtual debates in Parliament |  French “takes it for his cold”

(Ottawa) Yes, we have heard “you are muted” a multitude of times in the proceedings of the virtual Parliament in Ottawa. But what has also too often been muted is French, we conclude in a report which paints a portrait of the first months of the experience, and which is made public on the day of the start of the parliamentary term.

“It is clear that the use of French has been unduly restricted because of interpretation problems”, particularly in committee, where witnesses “seem to have difficulty navigating between the interpretation channels when they have to switch to ‘one language to another,’ reads the survey commissioned by the Canadian section of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC).

The independent study’s findings are based on an automated search for keywords such as “performer,” “audio” or “technical” in transcripts of debates in the House and 14 of its standing committees, between months April and December 2020.

These transcripts provide many examples where witnesses “were forced to speak English” because the interpreters could not hear well enough. “As it was suggested to me, I will speak only in English to avoid any difficulty”, notably declared a witness before the Finance Committee last July, one quotes in the brief report consulted by Press before its publication.

The glitches related to the interpretation accounted for 38% of the total number of interruptions identified. There were 1073 occasions when debates in the House of Commons or in parliamentary committee had to be paused. The main source of the forced shutdowns was technical – loss of connection, frozen screen, speaker in muted mode or on the wrong language channel, etc.

Added to this is the fact that two committees had to cancel sessions altogether, and that 16% of committee meetings were suspended due to technical or interpretation difficulties, according to the report from the Canadian office of CNA – a organization established in Geneva which has members within organizations such as the European Parliament, the IMF or the United Nations.

A “not brilliant” experience

In short, the experience of these “first months of virtual meetings is not shining,” says one in the report. As Parliament must “allow citizens to follow its proceedings in the language of their choice while enjoying the highest quality interpretation”, it therefore finds itself with a “great need for updating” on the linguistic level.

Indeed, given the reality of the workplace in federal politics, it is French that suffers, notes interpreter Nicole Gagnon, member of the CNA.

On the Hill in Ottawa, over 80% of the interpretation work is from English to French. Consequently, it is the French who takes it for his cold.

Nicole Gagnon, interpreter and CNA member, in interview with Press

Same story with Claude DeBellefeuille, the whip of the Bloc Québécois. “Francophone MPs from all parties are penalized,” she regrets on the other end of the phone. I am unilingual; I consider myself a beginner in English, and therefore to listen to a witness, I really have to go through the interpretation … and there, I hear: ‘Unable to interpret, incapable of interpreting’ ”, because the quality sound is not good. ”

Virtual debates in Parliament |  French “takes it for his cold”


An interpreter reads the speech by Federal Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The Bloc member, who takes the file to the Board of Internal Economy (BIS), even relates, without naming any names, that the chairs of certain committees went so far as to invite witnesses to put aside the language of Molière, history of promote the fluidity of exchanges.

Last December, the New Democrat and Conservative House leaders – Peter Julian and Gérard Deltell – also reported shortcomings in interpretation at the BRI. “Each time there is a technical problem of this nature, it is so much time wasted in terms of testimony and our parliamentary work”, raised Gérard Deltell.

The Liberal government did not make a member available for a reaction on Sunday.

Zoom worried from the start

When the House administration set its sights on the now well-known platform Zoom to host his virtual works, fears had been raised, says interpreter Nicole Gagnon.

However, it seems that time has proved us right, because Zoom is designed for videoconferencing purposes, not interpretation.

Nicole Gagnon, performer

And that’s not to mention that the compressed sound of the platform would have led to an increase in “hearing shocks” among the interpreters of the Translation Bureau, who are mainly assigned to parliamentary debates: according to a survey, 70% claimed to suffer physical symptoms, including tinnitus, nausea, headache, and severe fatigue.

As for what follows, the elected Claude DeBellefeuille is delighted that the administration of the House is open to exploring easily accessible solutions, in particular to carry out tests with witnesses before their appearance, and “to develop a sensitivity on the fact that if there are problems in the interpretation, it is necessary to put back time [aux personnes qui les ont subis] “.

The Federal Parliament resumes its work this Monday morning.

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