Facebook and Google, when translating a certain Spanish word, are reportedly suggesting English slurs, according to a New Hampshire professor who shared her findings on Twitter Thursday morning. Apparently, if you see “negritos” on Facebook, and you click the prompt to translate it, instead of getting “little Black people” (“negro” is black in Spanish; the suffix “ito” means small), you get “ni**as.”
Good morning. You know how Facebook offers to translate words that might be in another language? Well yesterday it offered to translate "negritos" for my friend. What did it translate it into in English? Not "little Black people." @Facebook translated it it to "niggas."— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, #Justice4AnthonyMcClain (@IBJIYONGI) April 18, 2019
I'm a Spanish speaker who grew up in a Mexican/Mexican American community, so I'm aware of how the word is sometimes used, but that doesn't mean that FB has to choose that translation. They can choose to be literal, as they are with so many others.https://t.co/ORD4pNJwiH— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, #Justice4AnthonyMcClain (@IBJIYONGI) April 18, 2019
After Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, shared her tweet about Facebook’s translation option, another person shared a similar instance with Google. When she entered “negritos” into Google Translate, she got “pickaninny,” a racial slur to describe Black children.
When the Daily Dot ran the search on Google Translate, it got the same results. Google believes this means “a small black child.” However, Google’s own Dictionary flags the word as “offensive,” but there’s no such disclaimer in its translations.
Prescod-Weinstein also brought up in her thread that just because a word may directly translate to one that’s offensive, social media platforms have a responsibility (and a choice) to refuse to share it. (Both Google and Facebook have not responded to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.)
FB also has the option of just saying "this is a derogatory word, and we will not translate it." But the original context of the post, which I have seen, was not to use the word in a derogatory manner.— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, #Justice4AnthonyMcClain (@IBJIYONGI) April 18, 2019
And she has a comeback for anyone trying to fight her on this. “For people acting like ‘this is such a hard problem to solve’—honestly the dictionary solved it centuries ago,” she said. “When you’re unsure of how a word is being used, lay out the multiple possibilities.”
For people acting like "this is such a hard problem to solve" — honestly the dictionary solved it centuries ago. When you're unsure of how a word is being used, lay out the multiple possibilities.— Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, #Justice4AnthonyMcClain (@IBJIYONGI) April 18, 2019
And followers agree.
It just feels like "If the word is on the list of known racist/racist-derived words, don't use that word for the translation" would be a REALLY easy bit of code to implement, assuming a library of pejorative words existed(and..obviously that library exists)— Shouty Jellicle (@UnquietAndrew) April 18, 2019
In this case, there are even crude hacks they could do. Both Google Translate and whatever Facebook uses have lots of situations where they just punt and leave a word untranslated. It's not optimal, but in this case it'd clearly be preferable to what they did.— Matt McIrvin (@mattmcirvin) April 18, 2019
Somebody went out of their way to create the offensive translation, though. Changing it cannot be complicated.— Cara D. Guanábana (@linluv5) April 18, 2019
Prescod-Weinstein did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment, but she brought to light an important conversation. Many nuances that help perpetuate racism are very easily solvable: In this instance, by not inputting the slurs in the first place, or at least labeling them as offensive and providing other options.