Google translate was at the centre of a twitter storm recently when several tweets began to call out apparent sexism within the way the programme operates. The debate began when Twitter User Alex Shams posted a tweet highlighting some questionable decisions Google Translate had made regarding the Turkish gender-neutral pronoun.

Shams notes that Turkish is a gender-neutral language, which does not use ‘he’ or ‘she’ but rather the gender-neutral pronoun ‘o’. However, when Google Translate translated Turkish sentences into English, it replaced this genderless pronoun with the English gendered pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’, rather than going for the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’. The issue stemmed from the fact that these pronouns did not appear to have been chosen randomly, instead appearing to have been chosen based on sexist stereotypes. For example, Google translated the following sentences; ‘She is a cook’, ‘He is an engineer’ and ‘He is a doctor’, ‘She is a nurse’.
Shams’ original tweet prompted other Twitter uses to weigh in, most notably Twitter User Taika Dahlbom, who revealed the same thing was happening when translating Finnish into English. She found that Google was translating the Finnish gender-neutral pronoun ‘hän’ in a similar way that seemed to be conforming to gender biases. E.g. the programme translated phrases such as ‘He is an engineer’ and ‘She is a secretary’.

The explanation for this apparently sexist behaviour is that Google Translate bases its translations on the frequency of use. Google confirmed this when Mashable reached out for comment regarding this issue. The spokesperson’s statement goes as follows: “Translate works by learning patterns from many millions of examples of translations seen out on the web. Unfortunately, some of those patterns can lead to translations we’re not happy with.”

The real issue then is not a sexist machine, but the prevelance of gender stereotypes on the web and in society as a whole.

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