President Shithole

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J. Edward Moreno, "Facebook apologizes after Chinese president's name translated into vulgar phrase", The Hill (1/18/20) — with screen capture in Burmese and English.

Poppy McPherson, "Facebook says technical error caused vulgar translation of Chinese leader's name", Reuters (1/18/20):

YANGON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc (FB.O) on Saturday blamed a technical error for Chinese leader Xi Jinping's name appearing as "Mr Shithole" in posts on its platform when translated into English from Burmese, apologizing for any offense caused.

The error came to light on the second day of a visit by the president to the Southeast Asian country, where Xi and state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi signed dozens of agreements covering massive Beijing-backed infrastructure plans.

A statement about the visit published on Suu Kyi's official Facebook page was littered with references to "Mr Shithole" when translated to English, while a headline in local news journal the Irrawaddy appeared as "Dinner honors president shithole".

It was not clear how long the issue lasted but Google's translation function did not show the same error.

"We fixed a technical issue that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook. This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesn't happen again. We sincerely apologize for the offense this has caused," Facebook said in a statement.

The Facebook system did not have President Xi Jinping's name in its Burmese database and guessed at the translation, the company said. Translation tests of similar words that start with "xi" and "shi" in Burmese also produced "shithole", it added.

China's foreign ministry declined comment.

Facebook is blocked in mainland China. But it is not blocked in Hong Kong and mainland companies advertise elsewhere on the platform, making China Facebook's biggest country for revenue after the United States. It is setting up a new engineering team to focus specifically on the lucrative Chinese advertising business, Reuters reported last week.

Facebook has faced numerous problems with translation from Burmese in the past. In 2018 it temporarily removed the function after a Reuters report showed the tool was producing bizarre results.

An investigation documented how the company was failing in its efforts to combat vitriolic Burmese language posts about Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims, some 730,000 of whom fled a military crackdown in 2017 that the U.N has said was conducted with "genocidal intent".

It also showed the translation feature was flawed, citing an anti-Rohingya post advocating killing Muslims that was translated into English as "I shouldn't have a rainbow in Myanmar".

Mariel Padilla, "Facebook Apologizes for Vulgar Translation of Chinese Leader's Name", NYT (1/18/20):

"This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesn't happen again," the company said.

News of the vulgar translation appeared to be censored in China, where major news websites and social media platforms were silent about it. In China, citizens have been detained, and even convicted and imprisoned, for much milder derision of Mr. Xi.

But on closer inspection of the original Burmese post, Mr. Wong said, he could see how a machine would make that error. Mr. Xi's name sounds similar to "chi kyin phyin," which roughly translates to "feces hole buttocks" in Burmese, Mr. Wong said

Reference (meaning and pronunciation)

The three characters of Xi Jinping's name literally mean:

习 /

  1. to flap (the wings); to flutter; to repeatedly flap the wings
  2. to practice; to exercise; to review
    /   ―  liàn  ―  to practice
  3. to study; to learn
    /   ―  xué  ―  to study
  4. to become familiar with; to be used to
  5. habit; custom
    /   ―  guàn  ―  habit; custom
  6. trusted follower
  7. to fall into a bad habit
  8. often; frequently
  9. A surname​.
    /   ―  Jìnpíng  ―  Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Source

jìn 近

  1. near, close
    Antonyms: (yuǎn)
  2. intimate
  3. approximately
  4. to approach
  5. (dialectal) to make a profit; to earn

Source

píng 平

  1. level; even; flat
  2. even quotations ▼
  3. draw, tie
  4. to level
  5. calm; peaceful quotations ▼
  6. peace
  7. to pacify
  8. (used in placenames of conquered lands) pacified territory
  9. ordinary; common; mediocre; average quotations ▼
  10. (Cantonese, Hakka) cheap; inexpensive
  11. (historical) Short for 北平 (Běipíng).
  12. A surname​, number 95 of the Baijiaxing

Source

Pronunciation:

Xi Jinping (/ʃ ɪnˈpɪŋ/; Chinese: ; Mandarin pronunciation: [ɕǐ tɕîn.pʰǐŋ]) Source

Simplified Chinese 习近平
Traditional Chinese 習近平

Reading

"Translating Trump" (1/12/18)

"Chicken Asshole Restaurant" (1/3/15)

"I'm lovin' it — next to the toilet" (12/12/09)

[h.t. a colleague]



2 Comments

  1. Andrew Taylor said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 5:31 am

    When I saw the title I thought the article was going to be about the Zimbabwean rebel Ndabaningi Sithole, whose name always caused a bit of a double-take.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 7:33 am

    From Julian Wheatley:

    Many thanks. We're in Rangoon and have just been visited by a lion dance troupe.

    I've attached a scan of the Burmese text. [VHM: available upon request] Here's what seems to have happened – still seems a bit far-fetched:

    The Burmese for Xi Jinping (encircled) reads: /ʃḭ-tɕḭ̃-phjĩ/ (spelling: rhi-kyaŋ.-phyaŋ). Without the proper name in its inventory, and without much sensitivity to the greater context (presumably), the Facebook algorithm cast its net about and came up with a semantically coherent phrase (though none of the pairs forms a compound), close in sound:

    /tɕʰi-tɕĩ-phĩ/ 'shit-excrement-anus', which in the text is preceded by "Mister" to give the meme, "Mister Shithole".

    Haven't had time to gauge the Burmese response – after Xi's visit.

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