Lost in Translation

The other day, my daughter won a trophy in a tennis tournament and the club posted on Facebook a photo of her with the trophy. I shared their photo and added the comment, “Parabéns!” I figured saying congratulations in Portuguese was appropriate, especially as the club’s post had a Portuguese description.

Facebook has a translation feature and for most people, it’s set to automatically translate foreign languages to whatever the person’s default language is. (I’ve had to turn this off for Portuguese!) In its infinite wisdom, Facebook decided to translate “Parabéns” (the Portuguese word for “Congratulations”) to “Happy Birthday!” Now, people do say “parabéns” on someone’s birthday, but it’s also used when people succeed in various ways (like winning a trophy!). I realized what happened when people responded with birthday greetings (despite her birthday photo being posted months earlier!).

It made me start wondering: how much automatic “help” do we get from programs that actually doesn’t help? How much of this do we miss because we don’t know what the program is actually doing? In this case, it was a minor glitch. If this was a glitch in a self-driving car’s programming, it could have been fatal.

As more and more automatic systems take over how we do things, this will become a bigger issue. How often will the system take a particular action that is not one we intended and maybe not even one we notice?


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