Error machine translation: president China 'Mr. Shithole'

Error machine translation: president China 'Mr. Shithole'


It just goes to show that machine translations do not always go well. Xi Jinping got a nasty surprise during his state visit because the machine translation from Burmese to English on Facebook did not translate his name correctly.

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Xi Jinping on state visit to Myanmar

China's President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January to strengthen Myanmar-China relations. The news coverage surrounding the state visit was universally positive: he was welcomed by dancing children and the atmosphere was good. Until something went wrong with the translation of articles about the visit from Burmese.

Xi Jinping translated as Mr. Shithole

Facebook's machine translation translated the president's name as Mr. Shithole, causing headlines like "Dinner honors President Shithole" to circulate. This automatic translation is seen you when you set that you prefer to see pages in your native language rather than the original language. According to Facebook's statement, there was a technical problem that caused errors in translations from Burmese to English. Xi Jinping's name was not included in the translation memory, so the translation engine had to make a 'guess'. The Facebook representative apologized and promised to work on a permanent solution.

Clumsy use of machine translation

Machine translation is widely used today for content that needs to be quickly converted to another language, as Facebook offers the option to instantly translate any posted message for you. This kind of instant translation service can be very useful, for example, for customer service or information used only internally in a company. Where it went wrong with this machine translation, however, is that it involved so-called "highly visible content" that also had to do with politics. With news stories or, for example, advertisements that reach a lot of people, it is often common to have a human translator do the work or check the machine translation before it can be seen by an audience of millions.

Machine translation from Burmese language

Burmese is not the easiest language to translate from anyway. It is written in a completely different script, the Burmese script, and, like most Chinese languages, is a tonal language. This means that the same word can take on a completely different meaning at a different pitch: something that must also be reflected in the writing. Burmese is currently the native language of some 32 million people and is mainly spoken in Myanmar (also called Burma), where it is the official language.

Facebook in China

There is little chance that within China many people have seen the offensive messaging surrounding their president. Facebook is still a blocked website in China. Only in Hong Kong is it legally possible to go to the Facebook domain without using a VPN connection. The Chinese equivalent of Facebook is called Renren, also known as 'everyone's network'. It is mainly used by students and has more than 30 million monthly users. Compared to Facebook, it is small: Facebook has more than 2 billion users from around the world. Facebook was blocked in China after separatists used the platform in 2009. Other widely used social media in China are Weibo and WeChat, which have grown so rapidly in recent years that Renren is seeing its number of users decline.

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