Facebook has apologised for a distasteful mistranslation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name from Burmese language posts during a visit to Myanmar, blaming a technical glitch.
The error, which caused Xi’s name to appear as “Mr S***hole” when translated from Burmese into English, came to light on the second day of the much-touted trip where Xi and Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi signed dozens of agreements covering enormous Beijing-backed infrastructure plans.
The error most notably appeared on Aun San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page, which was littered with references to “Mr S***hole” when translated into English through Facebook’s automatic translation feature.
“Mr S***hole, President of China arrives at 4PM,” a translated statement said. “President of China, Mr S***hole, signed a guest record of the house of representatives,” it continued.
It was not clear how long the issue lasted on Facebook 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,” the US social media giant said in a statement on Saturday.
“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,” it said.
Gaps in the database
The Facebook system did not have Xi’s name in its Burmese database so guessed at the translation, the company said.
Translation tests of similar words that start with “xi” and “shi” in Burmese also produced “sh**hole,” it added.
Facebook is the most popular site for news, entertainment and chatting in tech-nascent Myanmar, where many even see it as synonymous with the internet. Politicians and government agencies also use it for official statements and announcements.
The site is blocked in mainland China but not 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 news agency reported last week.
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, some 730,000 of whom fled a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations 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”.