Anne James, an African American theater actor and director who lives in Shanghai and uses the popular Chinese messaging app “WeChat”, was the one to notice the racial translation made by the app when she was running late for a meeting and texted her Chinese colleagues in their messaging group on WeChat to inform them, the translation from Chinese to English read: “the [N] is late”!!
Ms. James, who has been living in China for the last five years of her life and career, was horrified to find out about this when she read the awful racial slur. Although a Chinese colleague of hers assured her that original Chinese message used the phrase “black foreigner” which is a perfectly good phrase and the term “hei laowai” is a neutral used by the Chinese.
A local news outlet found out when they tested WeChat’s translation for investigation on this incident that the translation of the phrase “black foreigner” is different based on the context it’s mentioned in. Most of the time in a normal context the phrase is translated as is “black foreigner”, but if the context in which the phrase is mentioned has a negative meaning, then WeChat will translate it to the [N-word].
Ms. James reassured her Chinese colleague who was in shock because of the translated phrase and told her that she was sure that it was not what she wrote or meant and it was something with the programming of WeChat, yet she still wondered why would such a slur be in the translator in the first place?!
WeChat spokesperson admitted to the error and apologized for the inappropriate translation which was caused by a faulty algorithm in the WeChat translator programming. He also said that once the users’ feedback was received the company worked on fixing the problem right away.
The app with over one billion active users all over the world and especially in China is not only a messaging tool, but it is also widely used as a digital payment method in China. WeChat is also a very popular online publishing platform and social media channel. The parent company of WeChat, Tencent, is a Chinese business giant and one of the world’s most valuable firms with a worth of $275 billion, according to the latest economic reports, wouldn’t allow a mistake as big as this one to go on any further. So, we do expect this slur to be gone from WeChat’s translator very soon.