Opinion: Dear Google, Undocumented Doesn't Mean “Illegal Immigrant”

Google's free online language translation tool is doing more than translating.

ByJORGE RIVAS (<a href="https://twitter.com/thisisjorge" target="new">@thisisjorge</a>)
August 12, 2013, 4:02 AM

August 12, 2013&#151; -- Dear Google Translate Team,

On Saturday I used Google Translate to translate a Spanish-language Univison News story to English. The news story was about Puerto Rico allowing undocumented immigrants the right to apply for drivers licenses--the headline in Spanish read, “Puerto Rico dará licencia de conducir temporal a indocumentados.”

The Spanish term indocumentado translates to undocumented but Google Translate translated the word to the pejorative term “illegal immigrant.”

Eight out of ten news stories I tested with Google Translate also inaccurately translated the term undocumented to “illegal immigrant.” My colleagues in different regions of the U.S. were able to replicate the same issue on stories hosted on Univision.com, LaOpinion.com and a number of other Spanish language news sites. (The inaccurate translation only occurred in the headlines of news stories.)

As a journalist, when I use the term undocumented immigrant instead of illegal immigrant I’m doing so in order to remain more neutral and not use language charged with anti-immigrant sentiment. When you use the term illegal immigrant, it affects attitudes towards immigrants and people of color. A 2012 study from National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found found that people who watch news programs about Latinos that convey negative images hold the most unfavorable and hostile views of Latinos. [PDF] It’s much easier to deny people their human rights when you’ve labeled them “illegal” from the get-go.

Campaigns from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Colorlines, Fusion and others have been fighting to get news outlets to stop referring to people as “illegal” immigrants. It’s especially troubling when these words are translated inaccurately from Spanish language news sites that didn’t use the word in the first place. Univision, La Opinion, El Diario, etc. care about the communities they cover and do not use this term.

When Google Translate changes undocumented to “illegal immigrant” in news stories your service is not only making the story inaccurate but changing the intended tone and politics of the story. You should also be aware that more media outlets such as Associated Press and the L.A. Times have dropped the term “illegal” and also are using undocumented and other more specific descriptions instead. An important cultural shift has happened to encourage all of us to be better - when people use your system, you are promoting outdated and very harmful language even if that is not your intention.

In March 2013 your chairman Eric Schmidt signed a letter addressed to the president urging him to “enact immigration reform this year.” Google, like many other tech powerhouses in Silicon Valley, employ hundreds of immigrants in their workforce. Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg presented a screening of the documentary “Documented” along with his pro-immigration reform political action committee, FWD.us.

Immigrants deserve to be seen as individuals with hopes and dreams. Referring to immigrants as illegal immigrants is dehumanizing and will never get us to think about and put forward fair and humane solutions for immigration reform as your chairman urged for.

I know this is a controversial topic, especially while Washington decides what to do with immigration reform. I’m not asking you to be politically correct, I’m asking Google Translate to be honest and accurate and make sure all instances of undocumented are translated to the exact translation.

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