Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, December 22, 2006 at 1:30 PM
You're playing with the Google English-Chinese translation beta, and like any curious individual, you start trying out some dirty language. So you enter "I thought this was fucking shit" and out comes "我认为这是中国运动员拉屎" (I think this is Chinese athlete shit.) Hmmm.
Then there's "i thought this was shame" which ends up "我认为这是中国的耻辱" (I think this is China's shame), and "i thought this was fucking" which becomes "我认为这是中国运动员", (I think this is Chinese athlete).
Tianya forum poster "Fat cat who walks by himself" discovered this and wrote it up in a post calling for a boycott of Googles machine translation. In the thread, posters concentrated on the "fucking" problem. "Seoii" summarizes:
Shanghai Morning Post picked up the story, running it under the title "Google E-C translation tool loses its mind." The reporters noted that it was not only derogatory phrases that got associated with China; the sentence "I thought this was glory" became "我认为这是中国的荣耀" (I think this is China's glory). In another example, the Chinese "坏学生" (bad student) became "good students."
Google's Ogilvy PR representative explained that the errors were due to the way Google's statistical machine translation operates: it analyzes corresponding words and phrases in a huge pool of bilingual documents to determine the most likely translation. Documents related to international affairs get translated correctly, he said (the inference being that since "fucking" is unlikely to be found in many of the documents in Google's translation database, the translator did not have much data to work with).
The rep also ruled out programmer mischief, saying that human interference "did not exist and could not possibly occur." There appears to have been some human interference in eliminating the problem, however - the offending examples were gone this morning, leaving the original Tianya forum thread, which had no screenshots, to devolve into accusations of rumor-mongering.
The speed at which this all was resolved is actually pretty impressive. The Tianya post was made yesterday, it was picked up on Google's translation forums last night, and it's already in Wikipedia as an example of criticism of Google's Language Tools.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.