In Ukraine, Google Translate has been turning “The Russian Federation” into “Mordor” and the name of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov into “sad little horse”. The news came to light on 5th January 2016, as Google released statements saying that there had been a technical error, and they were attempting to fix the problem.
Users began noticing this odd translation on 4th January 2016 and saw that Lavrov’s name became “sad little horse” and began questioning Google about what was happening. The problem has apparently now been fixed, and the translator is working as it should be. You can see a screenshot of the issue below:
Ukrainian users had already noticed problems with Google translate, as earlier in 2015 the automated translation software had turned the word “dignity” in Ukrainian to “crisis” in Russian. According to Ukrainian media, this particular problem persisted for a whole day before being corrected.
The word “Russian” was also translated to “occupant” and also had to be corrected; the glitch was fixed by late afternoon on 5th January, Moscow time. It is unclear as yet whether this was an oversight or a humorous hack.
Interestingly, there is a possibility this could be down to an activist: pro-Ukrainian activists sometimes call Russia Mordor in a reference to the dark, volcanic region in Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Furthermore, Russian and Ukraine are very close linguistically, and so the translation between the two languages should not have been a problem for the Google software. This error occurred in a climate of strained relations between Russia and Ukraine, who have now severed all political and economic ties and remain at loggerheads over the Crimean Peninsula.
An unnamed Google spokesperson apologetically called the process of automated translation “complex” and said:
He also stressed that the mistranslation had no ideological overtones, and said it was down to the fact that Google Translate uses algorithms that sometimes have “the inevitable glitch”.
Google Translate works by using a sample of the hundreds of millions of documents it has access to and uses these to generate what appears to be the most accurate translation. However, this process can sometimes cause flawed results because the meaning of words depends so much on the context in which they are used.
This means that the overly literal methods of an automated translation service can sometimes misinterpret words when it comes across them in a different context to the one that the user of Google Translate is working with.
However, this isn’t the first time that politically charged translations have occurred between Russia and Ukraine. Earlier in 2015, Google Translate turned the words “All-Ukrainian” into “All-Russian”. Around this time, there were 112 news reports in Ukraine saying that “the Revolution of Dignity” was translated as “political crisis in Ukraine”.
This one is, though less humorous, the most politically-charged: “the Revolution of Dignity” is one of the slang names given to the Euromaidan uprising, which overthrew the Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych. This translation was thought by some to be an insult to Russian state propaganda.
You can see a collection of embarrassing translations below:
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time Google Translate has offered slightly suspect cultural commentary. In the past, users have found that when translating from English to Icelandic, they can click the “Listen” button in the settings, type “lalalala” and hear Google reply with “Björk”.
Many of the other Google Translate quirks are simply harmlessly amusing though: first posted on Reddit, the option to turn Google Translate into a beatbox has become an Internet phenomena. To try it, copy the following text into Google:
pv zk pv pv zk pv zk kz zk pv pv pv zk pv zk zk pzk pzk pvzkpvpvzk kkkkk bsch
Then make sure you’re translating from German, preferably also to German, though Icelandic also works. Then click the speaker button and enjoy a rather strange beatboxing experience.
This latest story of Google Translate making errors has drawn attention to its potential to be both a very useful (and often amusing tool), but also a very fallible one. To try to improve the Google Translate service, Google have set up a Google Translate Community. Where users can post suggestions and also alert Google if their language is not yet available on Google Translate.
There is still a lot of work to be done if Google’s automated translation software is to be as accurate as both Google and their users want it to be. So far, Google Translate has remained fairly accurate on European languages but struggled immensely with the grammatical structures and alphabets of other languages, especially the Aramaic languages Hebrew and Arabic.
If you see a translation in Google Translate you know is inaccurate, simply click the “Wrong?” button, type in the correct translation, and click “Contribute”. It is hoped that with more work behind the scenes, and some contributions from those around the world using the service, Google Translate can become more accurate and be even more of a useful tool.