New Brunswick’s Legislative Assembly hopes to start work soon on clearing a 15-year backlog in the translation of Hansard, its official record of debates.
About 23 million words worth of legislative debates and proceedings, spanning the governments of five provincial premiers as far back as 2005, remain inaccessible to the public in English and French.
Speaker Bill Oliver revealed at a recent committee session that he hopes translators can soon start chipping away at the backlog.
“It’s taken us almost 20 years to get to this position so it’s not going to turn around overnight,” Oliver said, estimating it will take $300,000 to $500,000 per year over 10 to 15 years to hire outside translators.
Under Canada’s Constitution, “the statutes, records and journals” of the New Brunswick Legislature must be “printed and published” in English and French.
Hansard staff who transcribe the daily cut and thrust of debates have been successfully keeping up with each session.
But that transcription only reflects the language of the member who was speaking.
The problem has been the translation, a time-consuming chore that has fallen further and further behind over the last two decades due to a lack of enough funding for staff.
All the sessions from 2005 through to when Premier Blaine Higgs dissolved the legislature for the 2020 election remain untranslated, and that means they cannot be posted or published.
Staff will provide the Hansard for a particular date or topic if a scholar asks for it, but someone who doesn’t know about that option can be left befuddled by the lack of any Hansard between 2005 and 2020 on the legislature website.
Easier to find records of century-old debates
“The accessibility is not just a hypothetical issue. It does limit the ability for researchers or anybody else that’s outside of New Brunswick from obtaining access in an easy format,” says Lyle Skinner, a Senate staffer in Ottawa and expert on parliamentary law and process.
It means it’s easier to find records of century-old debates in a university library than proceedings under premiers Bernard Lord, Shawn Graham, David Alward, Brian Gallant and Blaine Higgs.
“That strikes me as a little bit odd that you can have a copy of records from 100 years ago in the library, but the more recent material is simply unavailable,” Skinner said.
In 2020, the legislature made it a priority to transcribe and translate the current session as it proceeds.
The 2022-23 budget includes an additional $120,000 for two new Hansard employees to finish the transcribing of the current session, plus another $100,000 to translate it.
The translation funding will pay for the legislature to outsource that translation to freelancers, a first for the institution.
Total translation tab: About $4.5 million
Oliver told the committee it’s difficult to find senior-level translators because they’re in heavy demand.
If the outsourcing option works well for the current session, he’ll seek authority for extra funding to use the same approach to start working through the backlog, starting in 2020 and working backward in time to 2005.
“We have to prove to ourselves that it’s possible,” Oliver said. “Then we can work on the backlog.”
At 18 to 20 cents per word, the translation should cost a total of about $4.5 million, he said.
Oliver explained the situation in response to questions from Green MLA Kevin Arseneau on the last day of a month of committee meetings looking at budget estimates for 2022-23.
“One could question why there’s been a backlog, but we can work on eliminating that backlog, on updating that backlog, and that’s what you’re doing,” Arseneau said as he thanked the Speaker for taking on the job.