Google Translate, Google’s AI-powered neural machine translation feature, can be an indispensable tool for any writer. But when used without a native speaker, it can sometimes lead to hilarious results.
However, recently, Reddit user u/Judicator_NOSIMPING pointed out that Google Translate can also be rude.
The post shows that Google Translate translates the Malay phrase “anak orang”, which usually translates to “someone’s children” or “somebody’s children” to “son of a b****”. It is an American idiom that means “an objectionable person”.
We tried it ourselves, and sure enough, it’s true.
So we decided to dig deeper and what we found was odd.
Firstly we tried to translate the same phrase in Malay to English using DuckDuckGo, the privacy centric search engine and the result was different.
The translation of “anak orang” to “people’s children” is accurate, but unnatural to the ears of a native speaker.
We tried again with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and got the same result.
However, when we went back to Google Translate, we noticed that when set to automatic, it detected the phrase “anak orang” as Indonesian and translated it to a more natural-sounding “someone’s child”.
Switching back to Malay we also found that capitalisation matters. Google Translate gave us a different answer if we capitalise the ‘O’ in “Anak Orang”. This time it translates the phrase to “Children of People”.
So what’s happening here?
As we said earlier, Google translate is a neural machine translation service developed by Google. In addition to the AI, Google Translate also crowdsources its translations.
In other words, it uses machine learning and can be manipulated when no one is checking.
To be fair some translations of words have been verified – you can tell by the shield checkmark – but most are still left unchecked and result in unintended translations and fodder for trolls.