The dangers of automatic translation

A Palestinian man was recently arrested in Israel simply because Facebook’s automatic translation system mistranslated a post he made. Facebook already apologised, but that didn’t stop an innocent man from having a bad time…

It all started when the construction worker uploaded a picture from his job at a construction site, along with the text “good morning”, in Arabic. Facebook’s automatic translation system translated this innocuous expression to “attack them” in Hebrew, and to “hurt them” in English.

The authorities, who did not speak Arabic, read this translation, and arrested the man for it. He was released after several hours of questioning.

The picture was of a man leaning on a bulldozer, which raised suspicions, because bulldozers have been used in terrorist attacks before.

The post was read by the authorities because the Israel Defence Forces monitor Palestinian’s social media, in order to detect radicalisation and potential terrorist attacks.

A simple misunderstanding, caused by a mistranslation, nearly cost an innocent man his job. This situation is an excellent example of how translation must always be faced with human critical awareness; a translation done by a machine may cause serious damage on people’s lives, and we must never forget this.