Imagine a visitor to Nunavut, walking through a community for the first time. They come across a sign written only in syllabics, a collection of black characters the visitor can’t understand. They don’t know how to find a translation—it’s easy to look up a German word or Japanese character, but where do you start with syllabics?
Imagine the opposite: a pair from Nunavut, travelling south. Inuktitut is their mother tongue and the only language they’re fluent in. They arrive in a city that’s only designed for English and French, and quickly become lost in the network of streets. They ask a passerby for directions but the language barrier is too big.
Language is a powerful piece of culture and connection—and accessibility. So, when Microsoft announced in January that Inuktitut had been added to Microsoft Translator, it wasn’t just a neat trick. Part of a catalogue of more than 70 languages, Microsoft Translator can quickly convert Inuktitut into other languages, such as English or Canadian French, and back again. That makes it an important tool in promoting Inuktitut and building a digital bridge between cultures.
But congratulations don’t go to Microsoft alone—the company worked closely with the Government of Nunavut and volunteer Inuktitut speakers on the project.
“The Nunavut government, what they are sitting on is a big treasure of [important] data,” says Christian Federmann, a senior data scientist working on artificial intelligence with Microsoft’s translation team. The treasure he’s referring to is the Government of Nunavut’s official documents, which are published in English, French, and Inuktut languages, including Inuktitut. It’s sort of a bureaucratic rosetta stone, and those documents are a valuable resource for Microsoft Translator, which uses AI technology to build a translation model. The AI learns by taking information in a known language and reviewing exact copies of that information in a new language.
“It’s not so much the grammatical rules for a language that matter [with this technology], it’s really… the occurrences or the statistics for a certain group of words to appear in a context [that matter],” says Michele Guignard, the CEO of localization processing company LocMachina and someone who has been involved with the Government of Nunavut’s Translation Bureau as well as a consultant with the government on the Microsoft Translator project.
The AI isn’t perfect, however, so volunteer Inuktitut speakers were asked to give feedback on the test translations. That feedback was then put into the system so it could further improve.
It’s not the first time Microsoft has worked with an Indigenous community to help put their translation model through the wringer. In 2019, Microsoft Translator added the Mãori language to its system, which “is similar to Inuktitut because it’s a very different language spoken by a small amount of people, and there’s not much data available,” says Federmann, “and for them it’s actually sacred, which means you can do a lot of harm to a relationship between English-speaking New Zealanders and Mãori people if you mess this up.” Working closely with communities was essential in that project, and so with Inuktitut they followed the same process.
After all that work, Microsoft Translator’s knowledge of Inuktitut should be fluent then, right? Well, not exactly. For now, Microsoft Translator can give you the general idea of what’s being said, but it won’t be perfect. Guignard compares it to a child learning to speak. It’ll make mistakes at first, but as more data is fed into the system through everyday use, the technology will grow more sophisticated.
There’s no shortage of reasons or opportunities to help exercise the system. The Nunavut government, for example, wants to use Microsoft Translator in its translation production process. And in general, resources such as this help promote and strengthen the use of Inuktitut, says Karliin Aariak, the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut. Her office receives concerns from the public about language rights issues, as Nunavummiut have the right to information in English, French, and Inuktut languages. Easily accessible resources like Microsoft Translator can help achieve that, Aariak says.
“We’ve seen, in some instances, some decline in some regions of the usage of our [languages]… and anything that can help increase and strengthen Inuktut is important.”
It also gives the language more visibility, says Guignard, especially when it comes to syllabics, which not everyone can read. Plus, the ability to directly translate Inuktitut to French is incredibly useful, as most human translation services will convert Inuktitut to English first and then use that English copy to produce a French copy. Direct Inuktitut to French translators exist, but they’re rare. Microsoft Translator can help shorten the gap between two of Nunavut’s official languages.
“It’s really having that opportunity, creating that bridge, making it easy for people to have access to translation,” Guignard says.