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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.”
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.
Google translate is not much better. I tried it just to see if it would give that same result and it gave as an “alternative” word “pickaninny” which I was raised to believe was a horribly derogatory term!— ♫ 𝓌𝑒𝓃𝒹𝓎 ☾ (@whispernghope) April 18, 2019
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.)
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.”
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 Person (@_A3K0) 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.— The Pickle Taste Like Chicken! (@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.
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