Why are Facebook and Google translating this Spanish word into a racial slur?

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.”

https://twitter.com/IBJIYONGI/status/1118855963841372161

https://twitter.com/IBJIYONGI/status/1118861313231532032

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.)

https://twitter.com/IBJIYONGI/status/1118861539921072134

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.”

https://twitter.com/IBJIYONGI/status/1118877146326413313

And followers agree.

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. 

Samira Sadeque

Samira Sadeque

Samira Sadeque is a New York-based journalist reporting on immigration, sexual violence, and mental health, and will sometimes write about memes and dinosaurs too. Her work also appears in Reuters, NPR, and NBC among other publications. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been nominated for SAJA awards. Follow: @Samideque