Colossal translation fail at the Boao Forum for Asia

« previous post | next post »

China is currently hosting the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, the smallest and southernmost province of the PRC.  The BFA bills itself as the "Asian Davos", after the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland.  The BFA draws representatives from many countries, so naturally they have to provide translation services.  Unfortunately, the machine translation system they used this year failed miserably.  Here are screenshots of a couple of examples:


Reminds me of some of the relatively early "Elephant semifics" output discussed here on Language Log.

[h.t. Nicki Johnson]


  1. AlexB said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 3:19 am

    The system has clearly been infected with the Gertrude Stein virus.

  2. Nicki said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 4:10 am

    I especially loved how "One Belt One Road" was translated into Chinese as "“一条公路一条腰带”, basically meaning "One Road One Waistband" !

    Screenshot of that gem here:

    The Boao Forum is the biggest event of the year here in Hainan, and President Xi came down again this year to give the keynote address, so it really is not a place you want to fail!

    Speaking of Hainan, the province is in the middle of 30th anniversary celebrations, so happy birthday Hainan! It does feel a bit odd to have more birthdays personally than the place I live, to be sure.

  3. Laura Morland said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 5:48 am


    Thanks for the actual "chuckle out loud".

  4. ~flow said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 5:56 am

    Proves people are no more needed for producing cromulent texts. Neither for reading them.

  5. Arthur Waldron said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 7:06 am

    This reminds me of Penn commmencement three years ago. Anything involving our president is designed to be flawless and what with the electoral nakba still in the future she was particularly genki bonding with the power women of the coming Hillary administration. The speeches were streamed live to the world also crawled on huge electronic displays. That was when I nearly collapsed. Someone was inputting in real time. The result was high tech hash and humiliation. Personal and place names misspelled. Indeed clearly unfamiliar. Grammatical breakdown. Most embarrassing: common English words turned into obscenities. Our message: Penn is the greatest BUT we don’t know English.

  6. Cassandra Silver said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 3:22 am

    The Gertrude Stein virus alas.

  7. Sili said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

    Madame Rudolf blinded area with science. Science!

  8. Tom davidson said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

    Google translate does a poor job translating TCM.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    @Tom davidson

    It isn't programmed for TCM, nor for Literary Sinitic / Classical, nor for Middle Vernacular Sinitic, nor for Buddhist Hybrid Sinitic, nor for Shanginese, nor for Sichuanese….

  10. Mark Metcalf said,

    April 16, 2018 @ 6:20 am

    More from today's SCMP:

    “Machines could do a good job in translation and interpretation in the future, but these cannot do as well as humans right now,” said Lily Wang, a researcher working on her PhD in machine learning at Boston University in the United States. “The difficulty is that people talk with emotions and context, but technology can’t read people’s feelings. Most programmers who develop these AI interpreters usually do not have a good understanding of linguistics.”

  11. ajay said,

    April 18, 2018 @ 3:56 am

    I like it. It has a sort of early 80s sound to it. RUDOLF RUDOLF RUDOLF! OUT OUT OUT!

    And I like "One Road One Waistband". Depending on the style of the waistband you could even go for One Highway, One Low-Rise.

  12. ktschwarz said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    This system was providing both speech recognition and translation on the fly — far more difficult than text-to-text translation, since errors in the speech recognition phase will be multiplied in the translation phase. Plus, the speakers must have been speaking English with various accents and Mandarin with various accents.

    That second screenshot is obviously an English transcription error: "a Ukraine employment" should have been "you create employment". Was it the ungrammatical English input that made the Chinese translation blow up?

  13. Nicki said,

    April 19, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

    Yes, I think that was a big part of it. I did see one comment blaming an English speaker for saying Road and Belt (instead of the expected Belt and Road) which resulted in the whole "waistband" mistranslation in Chinese.

  14. ktschwarz said,

    April 21, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    I ran the source article through Google Translate, and at one point it said this was an "oolong event" (乌龙事件). Oolong? They were drinking tea? A little more searching led me to believe it's an idiom meaning something like "own goal", maybe even a Chinese transcription of "own goal". It would be interesting to learn more about this phrase and where it comes from.

RSS feed for comments on this post