When translations go bad, bad things can happen

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The gift shop had a key chain with a miniature hominid skull (KNM-ER 1470) on it. I saw the price tag, and it looked very expensive. I’m not sure if it looked expensive because I had just arrived in-county and had not yet adapted to the local currency, or if was because I had just spent the last 10 months living in an economy where you could literally purchase ownership of a prisoner for about five bucks (ransom? human trafficking? maybe there isn’t much of a difference). In any event, the price looked high, so I turned to the cashier and said, in a language that we both knew and that should have allowed a mutually intelligible conversation, “This useless object just grabbed me and threw me violently to the ground!”

She was a bit shocked by that statement. We discussed it further, and then she was amused. Yes, we were speaking the same language, but our dialects were from regions well over 1,000 miles apart and across two countries. I had said, in my own dialect, “The price on this thing strikes me as a bit high.” Which, in her dialect, meant that I was viciously attacked by the hominid key chain.

Apparently, there is a way to say “Good Morning” in Arabic that translates into Hebrew as “Aiieeeeeeeee!!! Kill them all, attack!!!!!” or words to that effect.

A Palistinian man used his own version of the phrase “good morning” in a facebook postt, and the Israel police, for some reason watching his facebook page, used Facebook’s automatic translation system to produce a misleading translation. I exaggerate slightly above. An idiom for “good morning” was translated into “Hurt them” in Hebrew, and “Attack them” in English. The comment, “good morning,” was associated with a posted pic of the man leaning against his bulldozer at a construction site in the West Bank.

From Haaretz:

The automatic translation service offered by Facebook uses its own proprietary algorithms. It translated “good morning” as “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English.
Arabic speakers explained that English transliteration used by Facebook is not an actual word in Arabic but could look like the verb “to hurt” – even though any Arabic speaker could clearly see the transliteration did not match the translation.

But because of the mistaken translation the Judea and Samaria District police were notified of the post. The police officers were suspicious because the translation accompanied a picture of the man alongside the bulldozer, a vehicle that has been used in the past in hit-and-run terrorist attacks. They suspected he was threatening to carry out such an attack and the police arrested him. After he was questioned, the police realized their mistake and released the man after a few hours.

Let’s see if we can replicate this with Google translate.

Good morning in English is

in Arabic.

which in turn is

in Hebrew.

Either one translates to “good morning” in English.

Clearly, Facebook should start using Google Translate.

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8 thoughts on “When translations go bad, bad things can happen

  1. Weird. As much diversity as there is in Arabic, ‘good morning’ is such a common greeting you can’t help thinking there might have been some willful hysteria in the ‘translation’… You know, less a translation and more of a confirmation-biased piece of interpretive art.

    (Bulldozers are symbolically charged on all sides for a whole variety of reasons, btw.)

    1. As I refuse to join the cult of Zuckerberg, I can only speculate about what was going on at FB. But if the Arabic phrase used was the one that Greg has pasted into his post above, it’s a standard version of ‘good morning’ used pretty much anywhere in the Arab world. It doesn’t sound like anything in English except maybe, “So bah! ill hair!” As for the transliteration, it may resemble who-knows-what if you translated it back into some other random language — but why would you do that? There’s either something missing here, or it’s just a bunch of weirdness so far as I can see.

    2. Absent any more information, the conclusion to reach was that the police were looking for any reason to detain him (probably any other Palestinian as well) for any reason, valid or not. Sort of a continuation of the asinine stop and frisk policy the police in NYC used to use, but one with potentially far more serious consequences.

      And they wonder why their actions are so strongly condemned.

    3. OvAp: I don’t know what the original actual phrase was. So, I just used “Good Morning”

    4. I’m half-way tempted to join FB to get a look at it, but… anyway.

      Stepping back a bit, with populations rubbing up against each other in such important ways, you expect a least a little familiarity with basic things like: hello, what does this cost, where’s the toilet, etc. — especially (especially!) among police and security.

      As for translation, I’m still wondering why a translator wouldn’t just parse the Unicode.

      Arabic in Israel:


      Dean, I don’t think much wondering is involved.

  2. “Bulldozer” . “Hit and run”???
    There must be a meaning of hit and run that is very different to the one i am familiar with ,which is impossible in a bullozer, and very much literal.
    Perhaps the term is the result of a bad translation, which would be ironic!

    1. Hit and run is where you run into something with a vehicle then drive away without checking on what/whom you hit.

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