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Put On A Professional Face

20th January 2020

Facebook's mistranslation of the Chinese President's name led to a shocking insult. Never underestimate the value of a professional linguist.


Facebook has had its share of negative publicity in recent years, and today the company has been forced to apologise for a translation blunder that described Chinese President Xi Jinping with language that even Donald Trump might think twice about using in public. Mr Xi is on a state visit to Myanmar, seeking to strengthen political and economic ties. Burmese Facebook posts about his meeting with Myanmar’s head of state Aung San Suu Kyi mistranslated Xi’s name into a shocking insult. Burmese is the official language of Myanmar; it’s spoken by two thirds of the country’s 54 million people, and they speak it far more eloquently than Facebook’s automated translation.



Facebook has a history of costly near-misses when it comes to Asian languages. When company founder Mark Zuckerberg set out to learn Chinese he had a strong commercial motivation to succeed, and the support of his Chinese-speaking wife gave him a useful head start. After four years of intensive lessons Zuckerberg put his progress to the test. As part of an advisory trip to Beijing in October 2014 he conducted a 30-minute Q&A session with local students, entirely in Mandarin. Some of us would say he deserved credit for flying on this particular trapeze without a net, but not everyone agreed. Quartz News reported that he sounded "like someone was stepping on his face". Another observer wrote that he resembled “an articulate seven-year-old with a mouth full of marbles." The complexities of Chinese translation led Zuckerberg to state at one point that Facebook had eleven mobile users (at that point it actually had a billion). But students of the Chinese language would surely sympathise. It contains over 50,000 characters. Mastering a few thousand of those characters may help us understand 90% of the contents of a website, but what if the missing 10% is vital to our comprehension? If a website article outlines the quality procedures for a clinical trial, and our missing vocabulary includes the words for “quality’ “clinical” and “trial”, then no one in the pharmaceutical industry will be impressed.



Besides, learning a language isn’t simply a matter of memorising vocabulary. It’s possible to be familiar with each individual word in a sentence and not fully understand its meaning. The rigours of working through a text line by line would defeat anyone but a skilled linguist. Where many languages offer English speakers helpful cognates, Chinese, and indeed Burmese, offer none. They demand an extraordinary level of commitment, and professional translators spend years honing their skills. Not even a $83 billion dollar net worth and a Chinese speaking spouse was enough to give Mark Zuckerberg command of Mandarin. If you’re planning a short cut in multilingual communication, be careful; it might not lead you where you want to go. Don’t roll the dice with important communication. Put on a professional face.


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