WeChat has been forced to apologize after its translation function turned racist yesterday morning.
The issue was flagged by black Shanghai-based theater guru Ann James who messaged her Chinese colleagues in a WeChat group to tell them she was running late.
When she translated their responses using the in-app function, James was appalled to see that a Chinese message reading "黑老外还是迟到" was translated to read "The ni**er's still late."
Photo: Ann James, Source: Oxiang.com
Just like the word laowai (老外), which is used to describe foreigners in general, heilaowai (黑老外) is usually a neutral word used by Chinese people to describe black foreigners.
If used in a negative context, however, it can come across as a racial slur.
Due to the fact that the sentence referred to James’ lateness, therefore, it seems heilaowai (黑老外) was translated as pretty much the worst racial slur out there.
That’s Shanghai then tested the app, showing how heilaowai (黑老外) was translated as “black foreigner” in a positive context and “ni**er” in a negative context.
Speaking to Sixth Tone, WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform, apologized and said the problem has been fixed.
The company explained that the function is a “neutral machine translation” which uses artificial intelligence and big data to learn as it works.
There is therefore always a risk that such bots pick up offensive language.
This is not the first time chatbots have gone rogue on Chinese social media platforms.
In August, a another Tencent bot had to be removed from the QQ messaging app for mouthing off about the Communist Party.
When one user typed “Long live the Communist Party”, the chatbot replied, “"Do you think that such a corrupt and incompetent political party can live for long?" #Awkward.
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Keywords: racist Wechat translation
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