‘Backwards Arabic' in Google I/O demo puzzles native speakers

Keen-eyed linguists spot several mistakes as Alphabet CEO Sundai Pichai introduced developments to Google's translation software

Sundar Pichai, pictured in New York, has come under fire over Google's apparently malfunctioning translation software. Photo: Google

Despite being known the world over for its free translation software, Google has left some Arabic speakers scratching their heads after they spotted a bizarre mistake during an address at its annual developer conference.

Towards the end of Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai’s introduction to this year’s I/O conference at its headquarters in Mountain View, California, he turned to Google Translate and unveiled what he called a “monolingual approach” to teaching its software new, under-represented languages.

But it would appear the technique has a long way to go, as even the names of some of the languages appeared garbled as they came on screen.

One keen-eyed Arabic speaker, video game developer Rami Ismail, noted on Twitter that the words for Sudanese Arabic were in the wrong order.

“Congrats to Google for getting Arabic script backwards and disconnected during Sundar Pichai's presentation on Google Translate, because small independent start-ups like Google can't afford to hire anyone with a four-year-old's elementary school level knowledge of Arabic writing,” he said.

The software company’s woes did not end there, however, as other linguists spotted a host of other errors.

One Twitter user even went so far as to make a chart illustrating that all seven of the languages based neither on Latin nor Cyrillic scripts, were not quite right.

“Every single one that's not Latin or Cyrillic-based is wrong (at least a little bit),” wrote Sam Ettinger.

Even the spelling of Swiss German, the name for a group of dialects spoken in German-speaking parts of Switzerland and parts of northern Italy, was wrong.

Usually written as Schweizerdeutsch, Google instead had “Schwiizerdütsch” – apparently an attempt to reproduce the accent of the dialect through the spelling.

Marvin Chow, Google’s vice president of product marketing, took to Twitter to apologise.

“This was a mistake across different languages, and we won’t make excuses,” he said.

“We feel a big sense of responsibility to make sure everyone is accurately and authentically represented. I’m sorry we didn’t hit the mark – we've corrected the video & are updating our processes.”

Updated: May 12, 2022, 2:05 PM