How to hurt people with machine translation

A story flashed through the media in Ireland recently that caught my linguistic-technological interest. The newspaper Irish Independent published an interview on 1 February 2012 with a Polish immigrant called Magda (not her real name) who is receiving unemployment benefit in Ireland – which she is perfectly entitled to on account of being an EU citizen. Magda is presented in the interview as a shameless freeloader; somebody who has come to Ireland only to claim unemployed benefits. At one stage, she is reported to describe her unemployed life in Ireland as a ‘Hawaiian massage’.

It turned out later that this interview was a mistranslation into English from an original interview in Polish published in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Nowhere in the original text does Magda describe her life in Ireland as a Hawaiian massage. What she actually says is that she has taken a course in Hawaiian massage and is planning to open a massage business. She also says that she has a problem with being unemployed, hates living at the state’s expense and wants to get out of that situation.

There is no suggestion of shameless freeloading in the original Polish article, so how did it get into the English translation? It got there through a combination of selective translation (they left out the bit where she says she hates being unemployed) and utter mistranslation (the ‘Hawaiian massage’ bit). The editors of the Irish Independent were obviously biased: they wanted a good old scandalous story to pander to the anti-immigrant sentiment of their readers, and if they couldn’t find a real one, they made one up. They were also a little dumb: did they really think nobody would notice the discrepancy between the two texts? Luckily, the Polish ambassador in Ireland did notice, made a complaint to the Irish Independent and, after a little dithering, the newspaper apologised (well, not really: they only admitted it had been a mistranslation) and published a full and accurate translation of the interview.

This has undoubtedly been the Irish Independent’s biggest mess-up yet. Not only does it reveal the newspaper’s covert anti-immigrant agenda (which was already known) but also a disturbing lack of journalistic honesty, a lack of respect for facts and for the truth. Most commentators have agreed on that.

My question, however, is this: can it all be blamed on bias and dishonesty? A lot of it can, I’m sure, but the ‘Hawaiian massage’ bit has me in doubt. Surely even the most biased journalist in the world would not twist facts like that, would they? But if this wasn’t the journalist’s fault, whose was it then? The translator’s? How incompetent do you need to be as translator to translate “I have taken a course in Hawaiian massage” into “My life here is like a Hawaiian massage”? Or was machine translation used, perhaps?

My hypothesis is that this story was the result of a whole chain of factors. First, they probably used machine translation like Google Translate to translate the interview. This introduced some errors (quite a lot of them, actually: unlike some language pairs, Google Translate from Polish to English is not the best). Second, the journalist was probably sloppy and did not even read the translation properly (perhaps being discouraged by the low readability of the translation), so he or she resorted to just picking up keywords and soundbites. Thirdly, the journalist was biased and hell-bent on writing a story about freeloading immigrants, with no desire to find out what Magda was really saying.

Even though machine translation was probably the originator of the errors, do not blame it. Like any other piece of technology, machine translation does what it does neutrally; it’s how people use it that matters. And, like any other piece of technology, machine translation can be dangerous when put in the hands of people with evil intentions.

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3 thoughts on “How to hurt people with machine translation

  1. Thanks for writing about that outrageous scandal! I was mortified to read about this blatant manipulation, and you know what? I think they did it on purpose!

  2. Pingback: Надежный способ обидеть человека при помощи машинного перевода | Просто перевод

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