The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has been facing backlash for inaccurate French translations of its weekly email newsletters. Translation errors made certain emails incomprehensible, such as suggesting that Gerts’ cups were throwing trash onto the Lower Field. The translations were met with disapproval by many francophone students.
Sanchi Bhalla, SSMU Vice-President (VP) Internal, explained that SSMU cycles between two student translators who translate the Listservs from English to French. One of them was preoccupied with academics and decided to use a machine translator for this particular email.
“[The] translator came clean and they were brought in for a meeting with [Human Resources],” Bhalla said. “We also sat down with the Francophone Commissioner and we realized that [francophone] students would rather have no French than [incorrect] French. We felt like we weren’t doing our duty as a union to represent all of our students.”
After the first error was found in an email sent on Sept. 8, an apology email sent out on Sept 16 also contained mistakes which were pointed out by several students on Reddit. The text was translated from English literally, without consideration for consistent gender agreement, idioms, and overall flow, and structure. The translations improved until Oct. 7 listserv, in which the similar errors resurfaced.
SSMU’s Francophone Commissioner, Juliette Chesnel, has the job of protecting the rights of francophone students on campus. She spoke to The McGill Tribune about her response to the email’s aftermath.
“After the first bad translation happened, one of the VPs asked me, ‘What should we do about this?’” Chesnel said. “I [felt] like the best option [was] to issue a statement saying that [they are] about [this] and that [they’re] going to work on it. That’s why they issued a statement [by email], but there were also mistakes [there], which was a bit confusing and disappointing. I’ve been meeting with the communications manager and we’ve been working on [the issue].”
Chesnel reflected upon her own experiences as a francophone student at McGill.
“One of the main issues I wanted to work on, because I’ve experienced it [myself] is the submission of papers in French because it’s something that McGill really advertises,” Chesnel said. “When I got to McGill, I submitted my first paper in French and it took the professor two months to correct [it]. [The class] needed the assignment [so that we could work on] the final [project] and the whole class had two months for it while I had two weeks [….] Even though we’re an anglophone institution, we’re still in Quebec.”
Mary Anne Poutanen, a professor in McGill’s Quebec Studies Program, weighed in on the faulty translations.
“I’m not saying [poor-quality translations are] an issue just in Quebec, you see this all over [North America],” Poutanen said. “You have large populations of people who speak a [minority] language, whether it’s [the hispanic population] in the United States or Francophones in other parts of Canada [….] There’s a carelessness of institutions not tuning to really reliable sources to make those translations. The question is, this carelessness, how do you interpret that?”
Poutanen also reflected on how she would have approached a similar situation.
“I know myself that I wouldn’t put anything out there publicly without it being corrected out of respect,” Poutanen said. “Every day is a learning experience, so if I make a mistake I want to know about it.”
As a result of the criticism, Bhalla reported that SSMU will now outsource their translation work to an external company alongside the student translators to prevent against future mistakes.
“What we’ve moved on to now is we have a student translator but we also have an external company that we use as a proofreading source,” Bhalla said. “The two work in conjunction to provide the best translations they possibly can. We are working with professionals as well, because, while we do authorize student jobs and want to provide students a place to work on campus, we understand that sometimes you are preoccupied as a student and there are things that slip through the cracks.”
Bhalla reaffirmed SSMU’s commitment to serving McGill’s student body.
“Hold [SSMU] accountable,” Bhalla said. “When you hold us accountable when things happen, we do change, and we’re always striving to be better.”
I would say that the comments in [brackets] were a bit excessive, don’t think that many are necessary for quotes whose context is already clear.