from the bad-morning dept
Like many people today, I have a decent amount of experience using Facebook’s language translations. With Geigners the world over, including an eyebrow-raising number of them in South America, I’ve found the translations to be a useful if imperfect way for me to interact with distant family members that reside in countries and continents far from the States. Imperfect is a key word there, however, as some of the garbled nonsense that results from translations can range from somewhat funny to downright perplexing. It goes without saying that relying on a website’s translation alone to interpret someone writing in a different language is a harrowing experience fraught with error.
Or maybe I should say that all of that should go without saying, because it seems that Israeli police relied solely on Facebook’s translation services to lead them to arresting a Palestinian man who appeared to simply try to be congenial.
A smiling Palestinian construction worker posted a photo of himself leaning against a bulldozer and holding a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He posted the photo on Facebook along with “good morning” in Arabic.
Israeli police, relying on Facebook’s translation service, believed the post said “attack them.” Haaretz reported, “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.”
To be clear, it took a lot of unhappy coincidences to get us to this story occurring in the first place. To start, the Arabic language differences between the two phrases mostly amounts to the difference of a single Arabic letter. Add to it that the man’s Facebook post showed him in front of a bulldozer which has in the past been utilized as a weapon to attack Israeli people and buildings and you can start to see how the warning bells for Israeli Police had begun to sound. Now mix in that this Palestinian man was on the job constructing the Beitar Illit Israeli settlement, which itself has been a source of controversy in the past, and you might be tempted to forgive the Israeli police for briefly detaining this Palestinian man.
Except that pretty much every Arabic speaker that has taken an even cursory glance at the post immediately identified the translation error.
Haaretz explained, “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.”
Anyone who might want to suggest that the Israeli Police have no access to Arabic speakers they could have run this past does so at the risk of their own credibility. Put more frankly, relying on a Facebook translation to arrest a man who was in fact doing nothing more than being blandly amiable is pretty ridiculous. Given the reputation of Israel’s security services, I would have expected better.