Monday, October 27, 2008

On the Use of Official Languages in Personal Initiatives

[Warning: This post is bound to strike a sensible cord with some of the readers. Read with caution.]

Over the weekend I sent a few emails to invite people to fill the surveys I am currently conducting on PS Renewal and management and leadership, as well as the poll I have on my blog (see right-hand-side of this page). Earlier today I received, privately by email, yet another criticism to the effect that neither surveys are available in French. The note was short enough to understand this was something the sender felt strongly about, and clearly didn’t appreciate that French-speaking people were once again being neglected.

Since I have received a few of these criticisms – and some on other topics as well (such as the guy who publicly asked on a discussion forum whether those initiatives would be “community-based”) – I felt I would take the time to respond and explain the situation with regards to my personal initiatives.

The first thing I need to make clear, is that none of my personal initiatives are part of my work. They are entirely volunteer. I don’t get any sort of compensation (monetary or otherwise) for what I do, such as:

While I do it for the benefit of my employer and its employees, it is in no way endorsed by the Public Service of Canada. Everything I do, every words I write, every email I reply to, happens off-hours.

Thus comes the second key point I must clarify: all these neat initiatives that I work on at night (often until the early hours of the morning) are quite time-consuming. For instance, “An Inconvenient Renewal” took well over 100 hours to write, edit, format and publish. Actually, one of my greatest regret is that I never actually counted all the hours I put in that paper, because it is likely well above that… and that’s excluding all the preceding research that went into it!

Another example: the web sites I created for “An Inconvenient Renewal”, the “Bottom-Up Renewal” group and the two surveys I am currently administering, involved about 100 hours just to develop. That excludes the queries and emails I get, and the odd maintenance task.

One more example: the postings on my blog are usually a little longer than the typical blog posting, and each easily require 2 to 4 hours of work, depending on the topic and the length. Again, this excludes any prior reading or research. For instance, I wrote Blogging @ between 9 PM and 1:00 AM in a hotel room in Quesnel, British-Columbia, after a ten hour day of “regular” work. I mention this because when I read the article the next morning, I was actually disappointed by its quality and felt it wasn’t up to the standard I usually hold for myself. I guess this is what you get when you hit the “publish” button at 1 AM!

So to tell you the truth, whenever I post an article that took me 4 hours to write, I hope that at least 50 people will take 5 minutes to read (totalizing just over 4 hours of reading) – simply to get the feeling that there is actually some form of communication happening and that I am not doing all of this for nothing.

Third, translation is hard work! I worked almost two years for the Translation Bureau; not only did it open my eyes to the work translators actually do, I now have the utmost respect for what they do. Good translation is a science and an art. Now that I can appreciate what translators do, I can say that while I can translate text, I am definitely not a translator! Based on the length of the text, I estimate an average professional translator would take about 10 hours to translate my article on Blogging @ Translation therefore comes with a price – a price I can’t afford given that I’m not making a penny from all this volunteer work. It is also a task I can’t commit myself to, because most of the time, I need to go do my “real job” the next morning…

Fourth, I need to come clean with the readers: if I don’t translate to French my initiatives / web sites / articles, it’s not because I completely lack the capacity. As you may have guessed by my name, I’m French: born and raise in the province of Québec (see, I even use a French keyboard and put the accent!), spent 26 years of my life in Montréal. Obviously, I can speak and write in French. Furthermore, I will acknowledge that I am sensible to the whole “official languages” issue.

In fact, I vividly remember being in a boardroom with 15 other French-speaking public servants and one English-speaking employee who claimed she didn’t understand a word of French. For the next two hours I experienced one of the most painful meeting I have ever been to: 15 francophones doing their best to express their ideas in English to the one person who couldn’t speak French, with the characteristic accent you can expect from a group of French Canadians (and I count myself in that group)! It was atrocious to listen to because some of the French employees were struggling to even put sentences together. But at least they were trying. All this to say that whenever I receive criticism with regards to my English-only postings, I understand where it comes from and what it is like to be part of the linguistic minority (believe it or not, francophones are also a minority in Vancouver!).

The fifth and final observation I want to make goes back to a fundamentally incomplete assumption we tend to make about the whole official languages debates and our so-called rights. Building on the fourth points I made so far, it is quite clear that:

  • Since my personal initiatives fully take place outside of my work and therefore I receive no kind of compensation for it;

  • My personal initiatives already require a pretty significant investment of time and energy without even considering translating anything;

  • Good translation is not only expensive and time-consuming, it is something better left to real professionals;

  • If I really wanted to, I could probably do some sort of translation of my texts to French, hence supporting a cause I believe in.

So all things considered – and assuming we recognize I have no obligation (legal or otherwise) to translate my initiatives in French – the last question to answer is one about rights. But whose rights exactly are we talking about? I mean: the rights of the readers to receive the texts in the language of their choice? Or the right of the author to express himself in the language of his choice?

You see, apart from the fact that the bulk of my audience speaks English (or is at least capable of reading and understanding it), I consciously choose to write in English for my own personal reasons. Put simply: I want to improve my English (if you have heard me talk in English, you would understand why!). It is part of the reason why at the age of 16 I decided to go do my college degree in an English institution. It is also part of the reason why I moved to British-Columbia. It is definitely part of the reason why I write all my drafts in English. It is also the reason why I do most of my speaking engagements in English even when the audience is bilingual. I want to improve, and the only way to do it is through practice.

One thing I have recently come to realize after reading the book “Leadership On the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky (which was recommended to me by my friend Anatole – thanks for the excellent reference!) is that the moment you assume some kind of leadership role, you expose yourself to criticism. Most of the time, that criticism will come from people who are not displaying any particular leadership on the issue at stakes. If they did, they would probably take a different approach to the matter. But I have yet to receive a criticism about the lack of French on my sites coming from someone who in the same breath offers me to translate my latest article…

As it turns out, some of my paper and articles have been translated:

  • On the Definition of Manager”, one of my first article, was translated after my boss of the time read it and thought it was worth sharing with the Managers’ Network of my then Department;

  • Similar story with the article “All We Are Saying Is Give PSEA A Chance”, which the communication branch of my former organization offered to translate;

  • My paper on “The Volunteer Nature of Communities of Practice” was translated after catching the attention of a Director working in organization development;

  • A number of documents I wrote on staffing were translated, most of the times after I sent them to people I shouldn’t have sent them to had I decided to follow the chain of command;

  • An Inconvenient Renewal” was translated after the President of the Canada Public Service Agency got a copy I had sent her by email;

  • Just a few days ago, someone at the Canada School of Public Service offered me to translate my presentation on “Bottom-Up Change” so I could do it in a French Armchair Discussion at the School.

A few important observations need to be made here:

  • In order to get any personal initiative translated, corporate support is essential – especially since I work in a “English” region (British-Columbia). Based on my track record, I have come to realize that more often than not, that corporate support will come from outside my own organization;

  • In order to get the attention of the right people who will see the value of translating a document, it is often necessary to bypass the chain of command, and either directly target key senior people or use your network of contact to get to them;

  • Getting something translated is only half the battle. Next you have to hope that someone, somewhere, will accept to take the risk to post something written outside of work and publish it on a government site where it will be accessible to public servants;

  • Finally, despite the best intentions to get as much material translated as possible, reality is that the appetite for French productions is somewhat limited…

During the summer I went to great length to create a web site for the French version of “An Inconvenient Renewal” (Un renouvellement qui dérange). This site alone probably required about 20 hours to develop. So after getting some criticism about the lack of French in my personal initiatives in the past few weeks, I decided to check just how many people had visited the site since its release on September 1, 2008. If I exclude myself and the few friends I asked to verify the site before the launch, exactly 10 people have visited the French site, spending an average of less than 5 minutes on the site. Only 10!!! (And a single one of those ten apparently read the whole paper.) Pretty disappointing if you ask me, especially if I compare it to the 200 visitors who have checked the English site. If the French-English ratio was 1:3 as it is in government, it wouldn't be too bad; but 1:20....?

In a strange way, it would be easier for me not to do anything: not to blog, not to write papers such as “An Inconvenient Renewal”, not to turn them into websites to make them more accessible, not to create a group for people to share what they are doing with regards to PS Renewal, not to administer surveys to get a sense of how well the public service is doing in terms of engaging employees in PS Renewal, or not to prepare my next “big” paper which I intend to make on management and leadership, etc. In fact, come to think of it, I’m responsible for own misery! ;-)

So now that I have spent the better part of the last three hours writing this article and finally reaching its end, I have to juggle with one existential question: given this posting is over 2000 words long, and given this could represent up to 9 hours of work for an average professional translator, should I translate it or not?

Here’s the compromise: I will take the offer of anyone who volunteers to do it for free, off-hours!


rightantler said...

I am not working in the public sector, but I wanted to applaud your genuine efforts to improve, not only your use of English but also the PS.

I could read your post and pick out errors in grammar etc, but then if I wrote in french I suspect my errors would be worse! Language is one method of communication. I understand your articles perfectly and yes, you do have an accent but so do I.

I, being born in England, speak the Queen's English (apparently!) but even in Vancouver, I'm oft to wonder if I put on my best french accent, that I would be more likely to be understood!

The fact that you have written such a long article about this, tells me that this is important to you and unlike many critics (I suspect), you have the eloquence to express your side of the story. Bravo!

ncharney said...

Etienne - Je tiens à ajouter que nous choisissons d'écrire nos articles de blog en anglais parce que nous manquons de la précision en français que nous avons acquise au cours des années de la scolarisation en anglais.

Mon sentiment personnel est que l'écriture d'un article en mauvais français serait un manque de respect de la langue et ceux qui la parlent.

Comme vous, nous serions favorable à une offre de traduction de l'un de nos pairs.

SVP pardonnez mes erreurs mes amis francophones!