Google Translates Gender

Feb 13, 2012 by

[Thanks to David Pesetsky for inspiring this post]

The topics of Google Translate and of translating gender have been discussed in this blog before. I have argued that Google Translate fails to understand language (as many journalists claim it does) or to provide adequate translations. And gender is one area of language where even human translators can either fail abysmally or show extreme creativity. So what happens when Google Translate is faced with the task of translating gender?

Let’s take, for example, some simple sentences in English, a language that has no grammatical gender system, and attempt to translate them into Russian, a language that has a three-way grammatical gender system. Its three genders are masculine, feminine, and neuter, but only the former two will be of interest to us here.The verbs in the English sentences are in the past tense; in Russian past tense verbs, which are historically participles, show agreement with the subject in gender (and number). Since the actions in those sentences presuppose a human agent, we expect them to apply either to males or females, and the agreement in Russian to be either masculine or feminine. But which gender would Google Translate pick in each case?

What this experiment, conducted by David Pesetsky of MIT and illustrated in the image above, reveals is that using statistical methods rather than linguistics — which is what Google Translate does — uncovers some interesting sociological stereotypes. In each pair, the first sentence gets translated with a masculine verb, and the second sentence gets a feminine verb!For example, I worked in the factory is translated using a masculine verb, while I worked in the school shows up with a feminine verb. Similarly, I built a house appears in the masculine, whereas I sewed a dress in the feminine. Such gender stereotypes concern not just most typical occupations, but also preferred hobbies, typical  house chores, even food consumption patterns. The sentence I studied mathematics gets a masculine verb, whereas I studied art is translated with a feminine verb. Similarly, Google Translate views ‘cleaning the garage’ as a mostly male activity and ‘cleaning the house’ as a female activity. Female partners who own dogs may disagree that ‘wash the dog’ is something done predominantly by men, but would you expect Google Translate to choose a masculine verb when translating I washed the children? And can you guess which form appears in the Google Translate “translations” of I ate meat and I ate a salad?

If Google Translate’s choices of verb forms are to be taken seriously, men are workaholics, while women like to spend their time at more light-hearted activities; hence, I loved to work is translated in the masculine and I love to dance — in the feminine. Men have more gravitas: they ‘laugh’, while women ‘giggle’.

But perhaps most revealingly, the sentence I was stupid is translated with a masculine verb (and adjective), whereas I was ugly gets a feminine translation. Is it because men worry more about their smarts, and women — about their looks? If men and women I know are anything to go by, the answer is “hardly”. But then stereotypes don’t have to match reality too closely, do they?



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