Facebook has apologised for translating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name as “Mr Shithole” on its platform during his visit to Myanmar this week. The company said the incident was due to a “technical issue” that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook.
The technical error produced a rather embarrassing and awkward situation for all the parties involved. As part of his visit to the Myanmar, President Xi met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to sign various infrastructure agreements backed by China. A post about the visit was published to Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page, which meant that it was loaded with references to “Mr Shithole” when translated to English.
Additionally, according to Reuters, a headline from the local news site The Irrawaddy was translated as, “Dinner honours president shithole.”
Facebook said it had fixed the technical issue. Reuters reported that Google’s translation system did not produce the same error.
“This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Facebook said in a statement to Reuters. “We sincerely apologise for the offence this has caused.”
Facebook explained that the error occurred because its system did not have President Xi’s name in its Burmese database and guessed at the translation. After running translation tests, the company found that its system also translated similar words that start with “xi” and “shi” in Burmese to “shithole” in English.
Kenneth Wong, a Burmese language instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times that he could understand why a machine would have made that translation error. Wong said that President Xi’s name sounds similar to “chi kyin phyin,” which roughly translates to “faeces hole buttocks” in Burmese.
The “Mr Shithole” incident is an unwelcome hiccup for Facebook, which has a somewhat curious relationship with China. On one hand, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a critical stance on China. In a speech at Georgetown University in October, Zuckerberg said that Facebook “could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there.”
However, on the other hand, Facebook is dedicating more resources to its Chinese advertising business, which generated more than $US5 ($7) billion for the company in 2018. At the beginning of the month, the company confirmed the creation of a new engineering team in Singapore to focus on its Chinese customers.
Although Facebook is blocked in mainland China, it is not blocked in Hong Kong. Chinese companies and other entities, such as government agencies, use Facebook to promote their products and messages at the international level.
This in mind, it’s easy to imagine the reactions at Facebook when employees realised that their system had called President Xi, “Mr Shithole.” It isn’t the first time Facebook has had problems with its Burmese to English translations. Reuters cites that in the past, Facebook translated a post advocating the killing of Muslims to, “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”
It’s probably time to really fix what’s happening with Burmese to English translations. Just saying.