Facebook Inc said on Saturday it was working to find out how Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s name appeared as “Mr Shithole” in posts on its platform when translated into English from Burmese, apologising for any offence caused and saying the problem had been fixed.
The error came to light on the second day of a visit by the president to the Southeast Asian country, where Xi and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi signed dozens of agreements covering massive Beijing-backed infrastructure plans.
A statement about the visit published on Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page was littered with references to “Mr Shithole” when translated to English, while a headline in local news journal the Irrawaddy appeared as “Dinner honors president shithole”.
It was not clear how long the issue had lasted but Google’s translation function did not show the same error.
"We have fixed an issue regarding Burmese to English translations on Facebook and are working to identify the cause to ensure that it doesn’t happen again," Facebook said in a statement. "This issue is not a reflection of the way our products should work and we sincerely apologise for the offence this has caused."
China is Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States, and the tech company is setting up a new engineering team to focus specifically on the lucrative advertising business there, Reuters reported last week.
“We are aware of an issue regarding Burmese to English translations on Facebook, and we’re doing everything we can to fix this as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson for the tech company said in a statement.
“This issue is not a reflection of the way our products should work and we sincerely apologise for the offence this has caused.”
Facebook has faced numerous problems with translation from Burmese in the past. In 2018 it temporarily removed the function after a Reuters report showed the tool was producing bizarre results.
An investigation documented how the company was failing in its efforts to combat vitriolic Burmese language posts about Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, some 730,000 of whom fled a military crackdown in 2017 that the U.N has said was conducted with “genocidal intent”.
It also showed the translation feature was flawed, citing an anti-Rohingya post advocating killing Muslims that was translated into English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar”.