July 28, 2021

IT happens: Facebook sorry for vulgar translation of Xi Jinping’s name

2 min read

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: Facebook apologised Saturday (Jan 18) for a distasteful mistranslation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name from Burmese language posts during his much-touted visit to Myanmar.

His two-day visit to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw was the first made by a Chinese leader in almost two decades.

But the historic moment was dimmed by the automatic translation feature on Myanmar’s Facebook – which rendered Xi Jinping’s name from Burmese into English as “Mr Shithole”.

The scatalogical error most notably appeared on the official Facebook page of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Mr Shithole, President of China arrives at 4PM,” said a translated announcement posted earlier Saturday.

“President of China, Mr. Shithole, signed a guest record of the house of representatives,” it continued.

READ: China’s Xi vows ‘new era’ of Myanmar ties after red carpet welcome

READ: As China’s Xi visits Myanmar, ethnic groups rue ‘disrespectful’ investment

It was not clear how long the issue lasted but Google’s translation function did not show the same error.

“We fixed a technical issue that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook. This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We sincerely apologize for the offense this has caused,” Facebook said in a statement.

The Facebook system did not have President Xi Jinping’s name in its Burmese database and guessed at the translation, the company said. Translation tests of similar words that start with “xi” and “shi” in Burmese also produced “shithole”, it added.

Facebook is blocked in mainland China. But it is not blocked in Hong Kong and mainland companies advertise elsewhere on the platform, making China Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States. It is setting up a new engineering team to focus specifically on the lucrative Chinese advertising business, Reuters reported last week.

Tech-nascent Myanmar loves Facebook.

The platform is the most popular site for news, entertainment and chat – many even see it as synonymous with the internet.

Politicians and government agencies also use it for official statements and announcements.

But Facebook has faced numerous problems with translation from Burmese in the past. In 2018 it temporarily removed the function after a Reuters report showed the tool was producing bizarre results.

An investigation documented how the company was failing in its efforts to combat vitriolic Burmese language posts about Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, some 730,000 of whom fled a military crackdown in 2017 that the U.N has said was conducted with “genocidal intent”.

It also showed the translation feature was flawed, citing an anti-Rohingya post advocating killing Muslims that was translated into English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar”.