President Shithole: (Mis)Adventures in Machine Translation

I’ve written many times that friends don’t let friends use Google Translate (most recently, It’s a shame to dry the fruit with old uncles). I readily admit, however, that at times it comes in handy – as in this love story between an American journalist and a French UN Peacekeeper, as well as a multitude of other informal needs.

Google Translate is often used these days as a generic term for machine translation (MT), like “Coke” for a soft drink in the Southern US or “Kleenex” for facial tissues. So when we warn people about the challenges of Google Translate, that warning extends to all machine translation. Machine translation, though increasingly sophisticated, does not understand cultural nuance, humor and other subtleties, so when used, it’s essential to include a human editing step (known as PMTE, post machine translation editing or PEMT, post-editing machine translation) to ensure accuracy, style and flow. And nuance aside, sometimes it just gets things wrong.

When accuracy and nuance are important, nothing can replace an experienced human translator and editor. And in the political realm, nuance is everything – so imagine the reaction when Facebook’s machine translation engine translated China’s leader Xi Jinping’s name as “Mr. Shithole” from Burmese to English. Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook page published a statement about the visit that when translated to English read “Dinner honors president shithole”.

Facebook's machine translation engine translated China's leader Xi Jinping’s name as “Mr. Shithole” from Burmese to English
Facebook’s machine translation engine translated China’s leader Xi Jinping’s name as “Mr. Shithole” from Burmese to English.

Facebook issued an apology after the error was discovered, and the mistake was corrected – though a mistake like this can quickly overshadow everything.

“We have fixed an issue regarding Burmese to English translations on Facebook and are working to identify the cause to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. This issue is not a reflection of the way our products should work and we sincerely apologize for the offense this has caused.”

In a Facebook message between friends, an MT mistake is no big deal. When using MT informally or for internal purposes, it’s OK if things aren’t 100% accurate. On the world stage, however, a blunder like this can have a tremendous impact. And in your marketing materials or product safety information, it’s just too risky to hand over your voice, your brand and your clients’ trust to the machines.

When it matters, humans make all the difference – so talk to us about how we leverage the best of humans and industry technology to ensure that you’re never the butt (no pun intended) of the joke.

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