WeChat, the most popular chat app in China, has issued an apology after a Chinese phrase that typically means “black foreigner” was translated into “nigger” by the app’s software.
According to The Guardian, officials for the app, which serves almost 900 million users, said that the slur was a result of the artificial intelligence software that translates between Chinese and English.
An American who is currently living in Shanghai discovered the problematic translation after her friend was chatting about being late in a Chinese group chat. Ann James used the built-in translation feature and the message “the nigger is late,” popped up.
“If you’re a black person in China, you’ve come up against some craziness,” James told Sixth Tone. As an example, James said that she is often touched and photographed while out in public.
“We’re very sorry for the inappropriate translation,” a WeChat spokesperson told Sixth Tone. “After receiving users’ feedback, we immediately fixed the problem.”
The WeChat spokesperson told Sixth Tone that the company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning, throwing huge amounts of data at the system in order to train it to choose the best translations based on context, according to The Guardian. However, because the system also takes out human oversight, sometimes incorrect and offensive language ends up popping up.
Still, James says she wants to know why such a word would even be in the algorithm in the first place.
“Why is that word even in the translator?” she said.
“I know there’s a lot of curiosity and a lot of ignorance about black people [in China],” James, who emphasized that she loves China and has called the country home for the past five years, told Sixth Tone. “I just think that we need to have more open discussion between Chinese people and black people.”