Language entrepreneur: Smaller languages could be lost in the Digital Single Market

Technology can make information available in large and small languages. [Shutterstock]

Opening borders may undermine smaller languages, unless research initiatives support making translation more competitive, says Andrejs Vasiljevs.

Andrejs Vasiljevs was the main organiser of #RigaSummit2015, held on 27-29 April. He is also the CEO of Tilde, the main translation technology company in the Baltic States.

He spoke with Christophe Leclercq, EURACTIV’s founder.

Andrejs, you are the chief organiser of this summit on the Multilingual Digital Single Market. What is the goal of this event?

This event brings together all the major stakeholders, policy-makers and researchers, to craft a strategy on how to make a digital Europe multilingual, to enable all 24 official EU languages to play a role in the digital services of Europe.

Can you tell me something about your company, Tilde?

Tilde is a language technology company in business since the independence of Latvia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We focus on enabling smaller languages and providing them with the same technologies and facilities enjoyed by larger languages in the digital world.

You are present in the three Baltic countries. How many people do you employ altogether?

We employ 130 people in the three Baltic capitals of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn.

This is a large number of employees for such a specialised area in small countries. Do you have a higher market share than your counterparts in larger countries?

The markets are not big, but there is definitely room for a strong player in this specialised field, and there is a lot of work. Because our languages are small, we have to create a lot of the technologies that are needed, and we have to serve international companies that are entering these markets. We localise and adapt their software products for the needs of these local markets.

There are fears about the Digital Single Market being more monolingual. How do you view these concerns?

In practice, it is difficult for the European Commission and institutions to provide the same support for all 24 languages. That’s why in reality, only English, French and maybe a few others are widely used for translating official documents. We believe that technologies can help with this, and that by applying state of the art technologies we can do much better in providing information, documents and services in all the EU’s official languages.

The Commission proposal for the Digital Single Market has recently been leaked. What are your concerns with this document?

We think that this is a very important challenge for all Europeans, but it is not sufficiently recognised and understood by all top policy-makers. This is why we have to gather together all the stakeholders, to give ourselves a much stronger voice to address decision-makers like Vice-President Ansip, and to show that it is important to act now, because every year that we delay in addressing this challenge increases the gap. We call this linguistic discrimination, because those Europeans from smaller nations are disadvantaged compared to those whose mother tongue is one of the larger languages like English, French, Spanish or German. We have to act now to close the linguistic and technological gap between the few large languages and the many Europeans that speak other languages.

Let me play the devil’s advocate. When we say we should use 23 or 24 languages for everything, are we not attempting something impossible, and therefore reinforcing the use of English? Whereas saying we should do everything in three or six languages, with some translation into the other languages, would be doable?

Luckily, technological advances have made everything possible now. Technologies are not the answer to everything, but we can greatly benefit Europeans by applying technologies like machine translation. For example, if a small business wants to open an e-commerce site by using current existing machine translation technologies, information about the product could be made available across all the languages. There is no particular need for artistic language. You just need to convey the basic information about your product, and current technologies completely enable that.

So, in the DSM plan, you will probably get some politically correct statements about the importance of all languages and being multilingual. But what practical measures are you expecting? Will it basically be money for the research sector and the translation industries?

I think Europe should take this challenge seriously and act now. It’s not just about money, it’s about actually implementing the policy of multilingualism. Public procurement could be a very strong instrument. If Europe were to ask technology companies to provide these technologies for all EU languages through a procurement procedure, that would drive European innovation and business. Companies like Tilde, in other European countries, would come together and provide a solution for all the languages. It is up to the European Commission and the other institutions to implement that.

What is the total translation market in Europe? How much are the EU institutions spending on it? How much is being contracted out? How much is spent on research programmes?

I don’t have the figures in my head, but the EU institutions spend over €1 billion per year on translation services, mostly on human translation services. This is a huge amount of money. The amount they spend on research is not as high, but we can find out exactly afterwards.

Of the billion spent on translation within the EU institutions, how much could be contracted out to make it more efficient?

I would say that one way to make translators more efficient is to provide them with machine translation tools, so that they don’t need to translate everything from scratch, but can post-edit and improve on machine translations. This is one immediate fix that would be much cheaper and faster than what is currently done.

There is already MT@EC, which is being rebranded as the Connecting Europe Facility – Automated Translation (CEF.AT). This includes machine translation. It will be opened up to the national public services that want to use it. But you are saying that this could be done better.

The MT@EC is a step in the right direction. It is a pilot project of the European Commission, but we believe that it should be scaled up to serve both the public institutions of the EU and the member states, and private businesses. Currently business only have services like Google Translate. This is a good service, but for smaller languages, the quality is not high enough. There are also concerns about the confidentiality of data you provide: if you want to translate confidential information, you will most likely not trust open services like Google Translate. And then for Europe to rely on such a service is risky because of the implications this would have for competition and diversity here.

Do you think businesses would trust the European Commission and use CEF.AT, even with some private sector intermediaries?

The European Commission can create a service for the public sector through procurement procedure, then provide quality translation services in a secure environment, and then businesses will follow. First businesses will provide the services, and then once they are being successfully used by the public sector, businesses will be eager to benefit from the same services. It is about building trust.

The current Connecting Europe Facility, CEF.AT, is operated by EU officials, or is it sub-contracted?

It’s managed by the European Commission, but there are several sub-contracts, and we are happy to have won one tender for the coordination of activities in member states. Today, we are launching this coordination action.

At this Riga summit, I have seen several documents: the strategic agenda for the Multilingual Digital Single Market, a call for action by the European language industries and research, and also an open letter that you are advocating. Can you help make sense of those different documents, and why you are promoting the open letter?

There is a sense of urgency, because Vice-President Ansip is finalising the strategy for the Digital Single Market, and we believe we have to be very active to show the need to include multilingualism in this strategy. Our community is very active but also fairly closed, and we want to reach out to the broader public, so we published this open letter online. We were surprised at how many people responded to it and signed it from outside our community.

How many signed it?

More than 3,500 people have signed the letter in just a couple of weeks, from SMEs, from larger industries, researchers, policy-makers, representatives of other sectors from across the EU and beyond. It shows that this is something that is very important for Europeans.

Some people talk of doing away with geo-blocking and language blocking. Is there some kind of commonality between this search for transparency, which we have been experiencing for ten years in EU circles, and this search for multilingualism that you are advocating?

There is a direct link. Geo-blocking prevents many Europeans from accessing digital content like audio-visual information. The same goes for language. If you do not understand the language, you cannot access the information. You are blocked from using the digital service if you do not understand the language in which the service is provided.

Do you think Mr Ansip has an especially receptive ear for that, given his own background as a former premier of Estonia?

I hope so. There is a false belief that English is a lingua franca for Europe, but statistics show that 62% of Europeans don’t understand any English, and are unable to converse in English. So for more than 60% of Europeans, English is not the answer to the multilingual challenge. We need to apply technologies to provide these services across languages.

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