N.B.'s unlingual premier experiments with device to translate French conversation

·4 min read
Premier Blaine Higgs holding the earpiece of the WT2 Plus, a device that translates French conversation into English in near-real time. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs holding the earpiece of the WT2 Plus, a device that translates French conversation into English in near-real time. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Premier Blaine Higgs has a new tool in his ongoing effort to overcome his inability to have a smooth conversation in fluent French.

This week, the unilingual premier of New Brunswick was trying out a new device, the Timekettle WT2 Plus, that provides him with artificial-intelligence-generated, almost-real-time interpretation of questions posed in French by reporters.

The two-piece set includes a small earbud-sized microphone that a journalist can use to pose a question, and an actual earbud that plays the translation into the premier's ear.

The gadget, priced at $259 on Amazon Canada, is like an early version of the Universal Translator from Star Trek, a device that according to fan lore will only be invented in 2151.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

The product description says it offers translation of 40 languages and 93 accents, and claims to have 95 per cent accuracy and a one-to-three second lag.

But it does have limitations.

This week Radio-Canada reporter Alix Villeneuve asked Higgs in French about the idea of a "rabais" on the provincial gas tax.

The premier had floated the idea of a rebate, a lump-sum payment to New Brunswickers sometime later this year to help them with the high price of gasoline.

But in French "rabais" can also mean "discount," such as a price reduction at the pumps, and that's how the WT2 Plus translated it.

Still, Higgs grasped the question and answered it in English.

Amazon.ca
Amazon.ca

"It is clear as a bell," he said of the device. "I am amazed at how clear and accurate it seems to be."

The premier said he often grasps the thrust of a question in French so he could tell the device was working well.

Still, it took nine seconds for the WT2 Plus to translate the relatively short question and play it back for the premier, creating a long and awkward silence during his scrum.

On Friday, a longer question by Villeneuve, about COVID-19 restrictions at the Shippagan wharf, got tangled up in the device's algorithms.

"I didn't quite understand the Shippagan quai — what was it?" Higgs asked.

"The wharf," Villeneuve explained, switching to English. The device failed to understand the word "quai."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

The fact Higgs is a unilingual premier of Canada's only official bilingual province has vexed his government since it took office in 2018.

It was the subject of a complaint to the commissioner of official languages in 2020, when francophone reporters were told to pose their questions in a COVID-19 briefing in English.

In scrums at the legislature, which are less structured and less formal, francophone journalists have traditionally switched to English when interviewing unilingual politicians.

The COVID-19 briefing complaint led the government to look for new ways to comply with bilingualism requirements at formal briefings.

Simultaneous interpretation was put in place so journalists could ask their questions in their choice of English or French.

Government communications staff also started offering ad hoc translations of scrum questions posed in French for the premier and his ministers.

Higgs promised when he ran for the PC leadership to learn how to converse in French, but he acknowledged last fall he hasn't succeeded.

"I think I'm doing very well in relation to my ability to read," he said at the time. "I have numerous compliments about my intonation and my accent.

"What I have difficulty with is a conversation … being able to interpret when one is speaking. It's a slow process to switch it around for me."

Marielle Guimond/Radio-Canada
Marielle Guimond/Radio-Canada

The WT2 Plus only translates in one direction, meaning Higgs's answers can't be rendered into French for the reporter who asked the question.

Doesn't meet legal requirement

That also means it's not a substitute for bilingual government service. It couldn't be used by unilingual ambulance paramedics to meet language requirements when they talk to patients, for example.

Language rights lawyer Michel Doucet said relying on an automated device to provide interpretation in only one direction falls short of what's legally required in the province.

"It remains an accommodation and not equal treatment as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada," he said on Twitter.

"It may be acceptable in other provinces but not in the only province with constitutional language obligations."

Higgs said he plans to continue using the device and hopes "at some point it'll be able to listen and transmit" to allow a two-way conversation.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting