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There are no female historians and male nurses, Google Translate tells its European users – Algorithm Watch



Nicolas Kayser-Bril [email protected] GPG key

Experiments have shown that if Google Translate does not fit the stereotype, it systematically changes the gender of the translation. Google says it’s all because of English.

If you read the story about male and female historians translated by Google, you may be allowed to overlook the women in the group. The phrase vier Historikerinnen und Historiker (four male and female historians) is expressed in Spanish as cuatro historiadores (four male historians) with similar results in Italian, French and Polish. I will. Female historians are simply removed from the text.

In the experiment, I translated 11 professions from one gender-reflecting language to another. We analyzed 440 translation pairs for German, Italian, Polish, Spanish and French. Together, these languages ​​are natively spoken by three in four citizens of the European Union.

Stereotype compatibility

In many cases, Google has changed the gender of the word to a fairly stereotype. Die Prsidentin (female president) is displayed as il Presidente in Italian, but the correct translation is la Presidente. Der Krankenpfleger (male nurse in German) becomes linfirmire (female nurse) in French.

On my list, the clerk was best translated by Google, with 33 out of 40 correct translations. For example, from French to Spanish, la vendeuse was correctly translated into la vendedora and le vendeur was correctly translated into el vendor.

The error is not systematic and indicates that it can be fixed. Kierowniczka (female director Polish) was translated correctly in all four target languages, while Chefin, la capa, la jefa and la cheffe were incorrectly translated into the male form. (When Google translated women’s professions correctly, it was often because the words in the target language did not reflect gender. For example, the Italian l’insegnante indicates both female and male teachers. I will.)

Experimental code and data are available online.

This experiment may not reflect what Google Translate displays when translating a web page or long text. In some cases, Google translates gender-reflecting shapes correctly, especially if nearby words contain female shapes.

Digital colonialism

Stereotypes infiltrate translations because Google optimizes translations for English.

A Google spokeswoman told Algorithm Watch that translating between language pairs requires a large amount of bilingual data that often does not exist in all language pairs. The way to enable these transformations is to use a technique called bridging. A language bridge in translation means that a third language is introduced to translate from X to Y, based on the existence of bilingual data that translates X to E and then E to Y. The most common language used as a bridge is English.

A Google spokeswoman added that translating a nurse’s female term from a gender-reflecting language into English would result in a loss of gender in the translation into a bridging language, as most English nouns are gender-independent.

Some of the experts I talked to agreed that the community of researchers working on machine translation was less interested in languages ​​other than English. Only in May 2020, the Computational Linguistics Association, a large specialized body, told reviewers of the Annual Conference that it was not possible to reject only papers on languages ​​other than English.

Window dressing

In 2018, Google introduced a feature that warns users that some words may be gender-specific when translating from English.

However, it is unclear whether such efforts were taken seriously. More than two years after the changes were deployed, the developers are correctly translated into French as le dveloppeur in male form and la dveloppeuse in female form. However, the developer translated it into le dveloppeur and translated every sentence I tried into a man. This includes the phrase that the developer is a woman.

Verified falsehood

In my experiments, 182 out of 440 translations were found to be incorrect. In their overwhelming majority, the error was related to the female form transformed into the male equivalent. 68 of the mistranslations have been marked as verified by Google.

A Google spokeswoman refused to explain exactly how the confirmed label was awarded. They mark the translation as verified if the translation is reviewed by multiple volunteers in the Google Translate community and they agree that the translation is correct. Automatic scoring methods and regular knowledge checks improve the detection of low quality contributions.

My experiment caused other problems. Rushev (boss in French) was translated into der Fhrer in German. This means a guide and is very strongly associated with the Nazi era. The translation has been marked as confirmed.

But Google reassured me that no militant group had invaded the Google Translate community to spread the word extreme. In this particular case [the error] The spokesperson said it was because of the bridge process. When translating le chef from French to English, we are leaders. Then translate the leader from English to German and you get a “flare”.

There is no escape

Google Translate is more than just another translation service. It is a feature that Europeans can hardly escape.

Starting with the April 2019 update, Google Chrome will encourage users to translate web pages immediately. When accessing a website in a foreign language, you will be prompted to choose between the original version or the Google Translate version, even if the website provides an official translation in the user’s preferred language. (Google couldn’t find a website that offered official translations, and it would be misleading to offer translation options in all situations, a spokeswoman said. They also turned off the translation prompt for users. Said that it can be done.)

About 250 million people in the European Union, or one in two, use Android smartphones. You can’t remove Google Chrome unless you manage it by avoiding blocking the system (rooting the device). Many of them are probably unknowingly using Google Translate.

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Photo by John Russell / Flickr.

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