Google is taking steps to reduce gender bias in Google Translate

Google Translate is getting a much-needed update to fix its gender bias problem

6 Dec 2018
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Google Translate isn’t always accurate, especially when translating from English into another language. It’s a given, since it’s more of a guide than a hard-and-fast translation tool. A part of this issue is that many languages have gendered nouns, while English doesn’t. The Spanish word for cat, for example, is a masculine word, while the word for chair is feminine. But some words, like professions, can be either masculine or feminine depending on the subject of the sentence.

And that’s where Google Translate tends to miss the mark.

Right now, if you translate the phrase “You are a nurse” into Spanish, Google Translate gives you “Tu eres una enfermera.” That’s a perfectly fine sentence grammatically, but it’s worth noting that it defaulted to “una enfermera,” the feminine version of the word. On the other hand, if you were to type in “You are a doctor,” Google would give you “Tu eres un doctor,” defaulting to masculine. 


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The same goes for other languages. In French, for example, the word “beautiful” defaults to feminine, while “strong” translates into masculine. 


But don’t go after Google with your torches and pitchforks just yet. The reasons behind these blatant biases have nothing to do with sexism on Google’s part, and everything to do with how their translation service learns. Google Translate is trained on hundreds of millions of pre-translated words and phrases from the internet. This means that if one variation of a word appears more than another, the program will favour the more common translation.

So, knowing that, all the above example tells us is that “un doctor” appears more than “una doctora,” and “fort” appears more than “forte.” Kinda cool, right? But it doesn’t make it any less jaw-clenchingly aggravating.

To combat this, Google is launching an update that will provide both masculine and feminine translations for these gender-neutral words. So, if you translate “a doctor” into Spanish, you’ll get both “un doctor” and “una doctora.” And when translating sentences from Turkish, where “o” means both “he” and “she,” you’ll get two sentences. 

The initial launch is covering Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish, but the plan is to add this feature to more languages over time. Google is also working on a way to address non-binary language in their translation services, which will be released in a later launch.

Good job, Google. Buen trabajo.

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