French language learning platform under fire after racist rhetoric creeps into translations

LICRA used their Twitter account to publish some of the examples of racism and antisemitism prevalent within some of the proposed translations offered on the website.

March 1, 2019 21:47
4 minute read.
French language learning platform under fire after racist rhetoric creeps into translations

Picture of a translation provided by he website Reverso Context when searching for the translation of the word "nicer.". (photo credit: SOCIAL MEDIA)


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The French language translation website Reverso Context has recently become under charge for allowing racist and antisemitic rhetoric to creep into the translations offered across their language learning platform after the French-based international racism and antisemitism watchdog Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l'Antisémitisme (LICRA) brought examples to the attention of the public.

Reverso Context's translations are compiled using an algorithm that gathers data from "millions of real-life texts" that are available in both languages - including official documents, movie subtitles and product descriptions.

The website works similarly to Google Translate, however, instead of offering full translations the website is intended to be used more as a dictionary, where instead the user types in the word (s)he would like to translate and then the website offers numerous sentences in which the word is used in context - and some of the translated sentences gathered by the company's algorithm have brought racist and antisemitic rhetoric onto the website.

LICRA used their Twitter account to publish some of the examples of racism and antisemitism prevalent within some of the proposed translations offered on the website.

The watchdog shared on Twitter that after they used the platform to translate the word "nicer" from English to French, one of the sentences provided was, "Hitler was a lot nicer to the Jews than they deserved (Hitler était beaucoup plus gentil envers les Juifs qu'ils le méritaient)." LICRA claimed they are currently reviewing the situation with their Legal Committee to examine whether criminal proceedings are possible.

Managers of the Reverso Context website apologized to LICRA as well as to their followers on Twitter after the recent discovery, explaining that the algorithm used can be problematic in weeding out racist material and that the platform relies heavily on users to report inappropriate content.

"@ Reverso_ is sorry for the visibility of unacceptable examples. They are no longer visible on normal searches and we are launching new filters," read a post shared on their Twitter account.

"We have never had such shocking examples that require such a quick fix," said CEO of Reverso Context Theo Hoffenberg, while explaining the problem to the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Hoffenberg ensured that the company will launch an immediate revision of the companies procedures in processing data used in the translations displayed on the website and promised a correction "within the day."

In addition to antisemitic rhetoric, there are also some examples of racist and sexist rhetoric within some of Reverso's translations.

Le Monde newspaper found that when typing in the word "les noirs" (the blacks), many examples included can be construed as racist. Examples include: "Known fact - blacks move in, crime goes up" and "To be fair, most animals hate black people," both examples of racist rhetoric.

When typing in the phrase "women should" one of the proposed translations read, "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs (Les femmes devraient être frappées comme des gongs)."

The proposed translations will differ depending on what languages are selected by the user. A noticeable fact to mention, however, is that many of the examples being discovered are coming from French and German translations.

Antisemitism is on the rise across the European continent, France in particular, when considering recent attacks on cemeteries, worshipers and public figures.

In the latest incident, a Jewish cemetery close to Strasbourg, France, was vandalized and some 100 gravestones desecrated and spray-painted with swastikas.

One of the gravestones was daubed with the words “Black Wolves,” a terrorist far-right separatist group from the Alsace region, in a village called Quatzenheim.

In an attack in 1976, the Black Wolves group set fire to and destroyed the Natzweiler-Struthof Nazi concentration camp located in Alsace.

In December, a Jewish cemetery in the nearby town of Herrlisheim was also desecrated: 37 gravestones were spray-painted with swastikas and other graffiti.

The attack came as dozens of rallies against antisemitism were held across France, in response to the series of high profile antisemitic incidents that rocked the country in recent weeks.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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