Until Tuesday evening a free service provided by Google was incorrectly translating the Spanish term for “undocumented” to “illegal immigrant.” The internet giant’s free translation service, called Google Translate, took neutral headlines with the word “indocumentado” from Spanish-language news sites and compromised the accuracy and fairness of the stories by not translating to the correct term in English.
It’s unclear whether Google Translate is now translating all instances of “indocumentado” to undocumented but 10 stories that Fusion was following had the correct--updated--translation on Tuesday.
I initially raised the issue to Google representatives in an open letter published on Monday. The company issued a statement explaining translations are automatic and based on algorithms that index “translated text that already exists on the web.” Google took no responsibility and said they had no plans for human intervention to update the translation.
When contacted Tuesday evening, Google would not confirm if the updated accurate translations are a result of an engineer updating the algorithms. A Google representative issued the statement sent to Fusion earlier this week: “We're always working to improve our algorithms, and we appreciate feedback from our users.”
“For them to not to understand or be receptive to the fact that undocumented is not the same as illegal, regardless of how their system is generating that answer, is irresponsible,” Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) told Fusion Tuesday morning.
In 2006 the NAHJ began urging media companies to use either undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, instead of "illegal immigrants," "illegal aliens" and "illegals" when describing people who are in the U.S. without proper documentation.
“To call a human being illegal is not only unfair but it’s inaccurate, no human being is illegal,” said Balta. “Only their actions can be illegal and we have been advocating and fighting for media companies to take the time to accurately portray their actions and not demean them by using the word illegal as an adjective.”
The term is also racially biased according to Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines.com, who in 2010 launched the Drop the i-Word campaign.
“The associations that people make with the term are highly racialized. So when the term is used, in most minds, the image of a Latino man come up even though there are lot of other kinds of people who are without status in the country including many European immigrants,” she said. The associations are “applied in a racially discriminatory way”, Sen went on to say.
A 2012 study from National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found over 30% of 900 non-Hispanic respondents believed the majority of Latinos were undocumented.
News publications including the Associated Press, New York Times, L.A. Times, and networks like ABC News and CNN also have explicit guidelines for journalist to avoid the term “illegal immigrant” and instead recommends journalists offer more context explaining the subject’s legal status.
“The reason the news outlets have made the change to stop using illegal immigrant is because they understand it’s not a neutral term, and they've made an effort to separate the action from the human being,” Sen went on to say.
Not Taking Responsibility
Google placed the blame of the failed translation on the algorithm and the responsibility on users who were supposed to submit better translation to the service. When pressed to agree that “undocumented” in Spanish translated to “indocumentado,” a Google representative reminded me the translations were made by the algorithm that indexed millions of existing translation on the internet.
But humans create algorithms.
“These decisions about what language we use are not decisions made by machines they’re made by human beings and pushing the decision and the responsibility to an algorithm is totally unacceptable,” Sen said, referencing Google’s spokesperson who said the incorrect translation was due to the way their system scanned existing translation.
“If the tech community is going to get into news and in to shaping public opinion and into language then they have to expect to be held accountable,” she added.
“To try to wash their hands of an issue based on the algorithms of how that word is translated is irresponsible, they need to be sensible to the fact that this term is a hot button issue in our country right now,” said Balta, NAHJ’s president. “It’s been my experience that you need to take a look at who the decision makers are and see if they are reflective of the people who are closest to this issue and I’d say perhaps that’s part of the problem.”