Erm, Google, that’s not how you write Arabic

I’ve been learning Arabic for a couple of years, after one of my previous startups had a large-ish team of developers in Egypt. Even though I’m only a novice, I did spot something truly bizarre in today’s keynote at Google I/O: A bunch of the languages on the slide are … wrong?

The text in Arabic reads “Sudanese Language,” but is written the wrong way and with script that makes Arabic speakers raise an eyebrow or two. Swiss German (usually written as “Schweizerdeutsch”) is written in what seems to be a local accent trying to mimic an accent (not unlike if you write “what’s that all aboot” to try to mimic a Canadian accent — you can, but it isn’t typically the done thing).

It’s unclear whether the Google Translate team was trying to get clever and show some local knowledge here by flexing writing in local accents, but that seems … odd. Regardless, putting any of these translations into Google Translate results in translations that are more correct than what ended up on Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s slide. Utterly baffling.

Rami puts it well:

If Google had wanted to get it right, it should have gone with something along the lines of لهجة سودانية — which means “Sudanese dialect” or “Sudanese slang.” It’s clearly a world of difference from the copy that ended up on the slide.

On top of that, it turns out that a bunch of the other languages in non-Latin script are garbled beyond recognition: The Urdu translation makes little sense, and there’s a number of other face palm moments in there as well. Sam breaks it down in this tweet:

Google Translate is undoubtedly a powerful tool to get the gist of an article or some words, but it’s pretty bizarre to see a flurry of mistakes all on a single part of the presentation. If you want to see the moment in the Google IO presentation for some excellent head-scratching linguistic action, YouTube has your back.

Thank you to my friend Ashraf for additional help in reporting this piece.