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Google Says Google Translate Can’t Replace Human Translators. Immigration Officials Have Used It to Vet Refugees.

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Documents shared with segala.info show that immigration officials have been told to lớn vet refugees’ social media posts using Google Translate. Language experts caution even students against using the service.


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It’s a comtháng internet experience: throw a foreign phrase into Google Translate or any other online translation tool và out comes a farcical approximation of the real thing.

That’s why many experts — even Google itself — caution against relying on the popular Google Translate for complex tasks. Google advises users that its machine translation service is not “intended lớn replace human translators.”

Yet the U.S. government has decided that Google Translate and other machine translation tools are appropriate for one task: helping to decide whether refugees should be allowed into lớn the United States.

An internal manual produced by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency charged with admitting immigrants, instructs officers who sift through non-English social truyền thông posts of refugees that “the most efficient approach to translate foreign language contents is to lớn utilize one of the many không tính phí online language translation services provided by Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other tìm kiếm engines.” The manual includes step-by-step instructions for Google Translate.

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The manual was obtained by the International Refugee Assistance Project through a public records request và shared with segala.info.

Language experts said the government’s reliance on automatic translation khổng lồ dig inkhổng lồ refugee social truyền thông posts was troubling và likely to be error-filled since the services are not designed lớn parse nuance or recognize slang. The government may misconstrue harmless comments or miss an actually threatening one.

“It’s naive on the part of government officials lớn vày that,” said Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive sầu science and comparative literature at Indiana University at Bloomington, who has studied language and analogies. “I find it deeply disheartening and stupid and shortsighted, personally.”

Asked about the agency’s use of machine translation tools, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in an emailed statement that reviews of publicly available social truyền thông information “is a common sense measure lớn strengthen our vetting procedures.”

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USCIS has stated that “information collected from social truyền thông, by itself, will not be a basis lớn deny refugee resettlement.”

In 2017, Facebook apologized after its machine-translation service translated a post by a Palestinian man that said “good morning” as “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew.

As a test, segala.info asked language professors lớn copy and paste tweets written in casual language into Google Translate và compare the results with how they would interpret the tweets.

One recent Urdu-language post on Twitter included a sentence that Mustafa Menai, who teaches Urdu at the University of Pennsylvania, translated as “I have sầu been spanked a lot và have also gathered a lot of love (from my parents).”

Google translated the sentence as “The beating is too big and the love sầu is too windy.”

The Trump administration has vastly expanded the role of social truyền thông in deciding whether people can move or travel to lớn the United States. Refugee advocates say the government’s reliance on machine-translation tools raises further concerns about how immigration officers make important decisions affecting applicants’ lives và U.S. national security.

USCIS has itself found that automated translation falls short in understanding social media posts. An undated draft internal reviews of a USCIS pilot social truyền thông media vetting program concluded that “automatic foreign language translation was not sufficient.”

A separate pilot Review conducted in June năm 2016 stated that “native Arabic language & subject matter expertise in regional culture, religion, and terrorism was needed to fully vet” two cases in which potentially derogatory social truyền thông media information was found. The documents were published by the Daily Beast in January 2018.

The manual, much of which is redacted, only addresses procedures for a narrow submix of refugees: people whose spouses or parents have already been granted refugee status in the U.S., or so-called follow-to-join cases. In 2017, 1,679 follow-to-join refugees were admitted lớn the U.S., about 3% of total refugee admissions, according to government data.

“It defies xúc tích và ngắn gọn that we would use unreliable tools khổng lồ decide whether refugees can reunite with their families,” said Betsy Fisher, strategy director at IRAPhường. “We wouldn’t use Google Translate for our homework, but we are using it to keep refugee families separated.”

In a federal lawsuit in Washington state that is now in the discovery phase, IRAPhường is challenging the Trump administration’s suspension of the follow-to-join refugee program.

It is unclear how widely the manual’s procedures are used throughout USCIS, or if its procedures are identical khổng lồ those used for vetting all refugees or other types of immigrants.

The manual is undated, but it was released to lớn IRAPhường. in response to lớn a request for records created on or after Oct. 23, 2017.

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USCIS did not respond to lớn questions on whether the manual’s procedures are used to vet other refugees, when it was put into use or if it is still in use.

“The mission of USCIS first và foremost is to lớn safeguard our homelvà & the people in it,” Collins said. “Our first line of defense in these efforts is thorough, systematic vetting.”

In the 2018 fiscal year, USCIS conducted 11,740 social media screenings, according lớn an agency presentation.

The USCIS manual acknowledges that “occasionally,” online translation services may not be adequate for understanding “foreign text written in a dialect or colloquial usage,” but it leaves it up to individual officers khổng lồ decide whether to request expert translation services.

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Without foreign language fluency, an officer is unlikely to lớn know whether a post needs additional Đánh Giá, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Google và Verizon, which owns Yahoo, did not respond to questions about the use of their services when vetting refugees. Emily Chounlamany, a Microsoft spokeswoman, said “the company has nothing khổng lồ tóm tắt on the matter.”

Language experts say satire is another problematic area. A recent satirical Persian-language tweet showed a picture of Iranian elites raising their hands, with text stating, “Whose child lives in America?” (The tweet is commentary on a recent controversy in Iran regarding high-ranking officials’ cchiến bại relatives living in the West.) The text was translated by Google as “When will you taste America?” Microsoft’s result was: “Who is the American?”

“The thing about Persian và the Iranian culture is that people love khổng lồ make jokes about anything,” said Sheidomain authority Dayani, who teaches Persian at Harvard University và instructs her students to lớn avoid using Google Translate or similar tools for their assignments. “How are you going lớn translate it via Google Translate?”

Automated translation services are the “absolute wrong technology” for immigration officers making important decisions, Dayani said.

The use of translation tools has come up in other contexts. After a highway patrol trooper in Kansas conducted a warrantless tìm kiếm of a Mexican man’s oto in 2017 by asking the man for consent khổng lồ vì chưng so in Spanish via Google Translate, a U.S. district judge threw out the search evidence, finding that the defendant did not fully understvà the officer’s commands & questions.

Google has touted improvements in its translation tool in recent years, most notably its use of “neural machine translation,” which it has gradually rolled out for more languages. Researchers in the Netherlands have sầu found that while the neural machine translation method improves chất lượng, it still struggles khổng lồ accurately translate idioms.

One major problem with machine translation is that such tools vị not underst& text in the same way that a person would, Hofstadter said. Rather, they are engaged in “decoding” or “text substitution,” he said.

“When it involves anything that is subtle, you can never rely on it because you can never know if it’s going khổng lồ make grotesque errors,” Hofstadter said.

Machine-translation services are typically trained by using texts that have already been translated, which tkết thúc to use more formal speech, for instance official United Nations documents, said David Guy Brizan, a professor at the University of San Francisco who researches natural language processing and machine learning.

Language iterates too quickly, especially among young people, for even sophisticated machine-translation services lớn keep up, Brizan said. He pointed khổng lồ examples of English-language phrases currently popular on social truyền thông media such as “low-key” or “being canceled” as ones that automated services could struggle to convey.


He added that nontextual context like videos và pictures, the parties involved in a conversation & their relationship, và cultural references would be completely lost on machine translation.

“It requires a cultural literacy across languages, across generations, that is sort of impossible lớn keep up with,” he said. “You can think of these translation programs acting as your parents or grandparents.”

Rachel Thomas, director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisteo, said that while machine-translation capabilities are improving, anyone depending on algorithms or computers should think carefully about the recourse for people wronged by those systems’ mistakes.

Refugees rejected for admission can request a decision reviews, but advocates say they are typically given little detail as lớn why they were rejected.

Efforts to scrutinize social truyền thông media posts of some people trying khổng lồ enter the United States began under the Obama administration, và they were encouraged by Democrats & Republicans in Congress. USCIS launched a social truyền thông media division within its Fraud Detection và National Security division in July năm nhâm thìn, building on pilot programs operating since năm ngoái.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased social truyền thông collection as part of a push for “extreme vetting” of people entering the country. In May, the State Department updated its visa forms to request social truyền thông media identifiers from most U.S. visa applicants worldwide.

In September, the Department of Homel& Security published a notice stating it intended lớn request social truyền thông media information from a broad swath of applicants, including people seeking U.S. citizenship or permanent residence, refugees và asylees.