Machine translation error almost sends a man to prison

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When a machine translation tool tries to render foreign idiomatic expressions, the results can be quite unexpected. Machine translation error is commonplace. For example, the French expression “sage comme une image”, used to talk about a quiet well-behaved child, can become “wise as an image”, and the Spanish saying “como Pedro por su casa”, meaning someone who is self-assured and is not afraid of the unknown, can be translated as “like Pedro for his house”.

Are you tempted to say that these mistakes are not so serious? After all, they are funny at best, and awkward and nonsensical at worst, but have no major consequences.

You also might say that machines are not humans, and we need to help them out by keeping sentences short and avoiding idiomatic expressions. If we do that, the texts turn out just fine! Right?…

Well, everyone will agree that “good morning” is not a complicated idiomatic expression. It’s even one of the first things you learn when starting to learn a new language. Last month, a machine translation tool did get it wrong, however, with potentially disastrous consequences. According to The Guardian, a Palestinian man posted a picture of himself online with this caption in Arabic. He was leaning against a bulldozer, but the result would have been the same had he been sitting in his car or playing video games at home, as Facebook’s machine translation software translated this into “attack them” in Hebrew! The Israeli police were informed of the post and arrested the man for questioning. He was held for several hours before they finally believed him and let him go.

Facebook apologised for the mistake, saying that nothing is ever certain with artificial intelligence, and mistakes “might happen from time to time”. Yes, machine translation error happens all the time. Now, it’s up to you to see if you want to take the chance and enjoy that “dodged a bullet” feeling when it all goes well, or you may feel that “from time to time” is too often and you’d rather trust a professional linguist with even your most basic communications.

At The Language Room, we have certainly made our choice already. All our translators are humans and we never resort to machine translation. This is how we ensure quality at all times and make sure that gross mistakes such as this never happen. Plus, we believe that doing business with humans is much more pleasant than with machines!


Read the full Guardian article here: