WeChat, China’s biggest messaging app, has apologised for a gaffe, where it translated the phrase “black foreigner” to the N-word.
The mistake was first spotted by Ann James, an American living in Shanghai. She translated an incoming Chinese message into English, which produced the text: “The n****r’s still late.”
The original Chinese message used a more neutral term, hei laowai, or “black foreigner.”
(Editor’s note: The language in the screenshot below has been obscured due to its offensive nature)
WeChat rectified the error within 24 hours, but the company told Chinese outlet Sixth Tone that the translation was based on its neural machine learning engine, that picked up the term from broader usage.
WeChat, which has a huge base of over 900 million users, has been able to translate messages in-app since 2014. It relies on a combination of translation sources, including its own AI engine, and third parties like Microsoft Translator.
The error is reminiscent of other translation engines that have tried to learn from analysing big data. In August, two Chinese chatbots — one created by Microsoft — were taken down after they started posting unpatriotic content about the government.
Last year, another Microsoft chatbot, Tay, was pulled after it started tweeting racist and crude messages.