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China's WeChat app translates 'black foreigner' to N-word

A picture illustration shows a WeChat app icon
WeChat has apologized and fixed the error. Photograph: Petar Kujundzic / Reuters

China’s most popular chat app has apologised after its software used the N-word to translate a Chinese phrase that commonly means “black foreigner”.

WeChat, which has almost 900 million users, blamed the use of the racial slur on an error in the artificial intelligence software that translates between Chinese and English.

The issue was first noticed by an American living in Shanghai, Ann James, when her friend discussed being late in Chinese in a group chat. James used WeChat’s built-in translation feature, which produced the message: “The nigger is late.”

“If you’re a black person in China, you’ve come up against some craziness,” James told the news website Sixth Tone, adding that she is frequently touched and photographed in public. “I know there’s a lot of curiosity and a lot of ignorance about black people.”

In subsequent tests, users found the app used the racial slur almost exclusively in negative contexts, including with the words late, lazy, and thief. But in many neutral sentences the word – hei laowai in Chinese – was translated into English as its literal meaning of “black foreigner”.

“We’re very sorry for the inappropriate translation,” a WeChat spokesman told local media. “After receiving users’ feedback, we immediately fixed the problem.” Tests by the Guardian showed the translation software had been retooled and no longer produced racial slurs.

The company uses AI and machine learning, feeding computers huge amounts of data to train it to pick the best translations based on context. But the system also removes human oversight, leading to incorrect and even offensive words being used.

This is not the first time Chinese companies and media have been accused of being tone deaf when it comes to race. Han people constitute approximately 92% of the population of China, and most of the country’s ethnic minorities live in the far west, away from the populated cities along the eastern coast.

Last year a television advert for laundry detergent showed a black man covered in paint going into a washing machine and coming out as an sparkling Asian man. The video went viral around the world and caused outrage for its insensitive messaging.

Over the summer China’s state news agency published a video during a border standoff with India featuring an offensive parody of a Sikh man, complete with a turban and fake beard.

This article titled "China's WeChat app translates 'black foreigner' to N-word" was written by Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong, for theguardian.com on Friday 13 October 2017 03.37am

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