When the word “gay” is entered into Google’s translation tools, the word “luti” is returned, an Arabic equivalent of “sodomite”, to the ire of gay activists.
The translation tools of Google, one of the world’s leading internet corporations, are widely available on both Google’s website and in downloadable software.
In response, Google has vowed to ameliorate the issue shortly.
The word “luti” originates with the prophet Lot in the infamous tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, as does “sodomite.”
Unfortunately, the Arabic language has historically been devoid of less prohibitive terminology, as was English until the advent of “homosexual” and “gay”. In the last few decades, however, the gay community in the Arab World has begun to introduce its own, non-derisive vocabulary, such as “mithli junsiya”, the equivalent of “homosexual”, which has a short form of just “mithli”. In Google’s translator, derivations of this term return nonsense.
Despite the abundance of more derogatory slang in Arabic, Ali Asali, administrator of GayEgypt.com, one of the Middle East’s leading pro-gay websites, agrees that the term is unsuitable, he said: “It’s not the term used on the street for abuse, there are hundreds of these which vary from country to country and indeed from region to region within countries. You could argue that the terms “khawal” in Egypt, “pédé” in Algeria and “ajala” (meaning bicycle) in upper Egypt and I could list many more, are much more abusive. However the term looti is still inappropriate.”
The controversy over “luti” arose about a week ago when the administrator of a blog called The Middle East Gay Journal wrote an open letter to Google upon his discovery that the international company’s translation tools translated the word “gay” derogatorily into Arabic. Upon receiving a perfunctory, perhaps automated, response, the administrator was irked and spread the word to numerous other blogs, which spawned more letters to Google.
From his office in Egypt, Sherif Iskander, Google’s business manager for the Middle East and North Africa, told PinkNews.co.uk that he would fix the problem. He said that he had been out of the country for a few days and had learned of the problem upon his return.
“The machine is learning,” he said, emphasising that Google’s translation tools were still in their early phases, and they often went into the system to re-teach it better translations. “Several examples like this have come to my attention,” he said, adding, “Issues like that should not stay in the system.” He said that the problem should be fixed in a few days.
Nevertheless, Mr Iskander welcomed the input, “We totally depend on user feedback to fix issues,” he said, adding that when problems with translation are reported to Google, it allows them to improve the system.
Google’s translation tools use an approach similar to the methods used to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone – they take identical bodies of work in two languages and compare them side by side.
In Google’s case, they use the immense corpa of the United Nations. Despite using documents that totalled over 200 billion words, however, there were still some terms unknown to the tools.
To solve this quandary, the Google tools access online dictionaries to search for translations. “This is where most of the problems arise,” said Mr Iskander, indicating that the dictionaries often offered inadequate or imprecise translations, without context. Sadly, many of these online dictionaries employ “luti.”
Mr Iskander reiterated that Google’s translation services are a “very powerful tool” that is “opening up the Middle East” to non-Arabic speakers.
He said that the translations are far from ideal, but are meant to give people an idea of what is being written in other languages, without having to actually learn to speak them, “It’s like a five-year-old that knows two languages…it’s better being stuck with a five-year-old than someone who speaks only one language,” he explained.