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Hong Kong’s Social Media Users Are Calling Google Out For A Major Mistranslation

What happens when the machine makes you say the opposite of what you meant?

by Lex Celera
14 June 2019, 10:14am

Following one of the largest protests in the city’s history amid a political crisis, social media users from Hong Kong were shocked to find that Google’s translation software has been recommending a very contrary suggestion for a certain phrase.

When people keyed in the English sentence “I am sad to see Hong Kong become part of China,” Google suggested changing the word “sad” to “happy” in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese translations. The translation with the reverse sentiment quickly caught fire in social media, where users tried it out for themselves and were similarly antagonized.

The gaffe comes at a time where Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to oppose a government-proposed bill that would allow the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China. Protestors blocked streets around government offices in defiance, where police came out in full riot gear. Despite the protestors’ efforts, the proposed bill might soon come to pass.

“This is nuts,” tweeted one user with screenshots of the botched translation. “Google, You might want to check if you’ve been hacked,” another user said.

Danny Sullivan, an official at Google, responded to some of the Twitter users who raised the issue: “We're looking into why we had this translation and expect to have a fix to resolve it soon.”

An hour after the social media uproar, the translation was finally corrected.

As a free translation tool running on artificial intelligence, Google Translate does not hire experts to create grammar systems to use. Rather, it uses what Google calls a Google Neural Machine Translation system that analyzes millions of documents as a whole. The system takes semantics and context into consideration when processing translations, which the machine learns over time.