Google Translate’s Khomeini Problem
Although tagged under “religious freedom,” this post more aptly applies to freedom from religion.
Launched in Summer 2009, in the midst of the protests in Iran, Google Translate’s Persian service — as Farsi speakers can testify — leaves a lot to be desired. However, it is enough to roughly translate social media or blog posts, which is why it was rolled out when it was.
Strangely, however, it contains some quirks. While it is unbeknownst to me whether this is the product of human provenance, or a machine error, since discovering it last year it has continued to bother me more and more.
The problem? Google Translate Persian adds Islamic religious honorifics after the names of not only Khomeini, but also a host of Shi’ite religious figures.
Whether alone, or in a sentence — last name or full name — the Arabic/Farsi letters (ره) appear. In Persian religious literature, this abbreviation means, “May Allah’s mercy be upon him.” Or, “Rahmatullahi Alayh” (رحمة الله عليه) — signifying the first and last letters of this phrase.
Therefore, when Google Translate spits out, “Ruhollah Khomeini was born in Iran,” in Farsi — it is really saying, “Ruhollah Khomeini (May Allah’s mercy be upon him) was born in Iran.”
Obviously, for Google to add Islamic, and distinctly Shi’ite religious honorifics after the name of an extremist ideologue who opposed free speech and religious freedom, killed his political opponents, ordered the extrajudicial and transnational killing of “blasphemers,” and sanctioned the marriage of infants to grown adults, among a host of other horrors — this is cause for concern. The abbreviation in question is not a critical part of Khomeini’s name which will limit information when you search without it. The vast majority of pages appear without such abbreviations. It is solely used by religious Iranians who wish to commemorate Khomeini.
It gets even stranger. Thankfully, while no honorifics appear after Khamenei’s name — they do appear after a host of traditional Shi’ite religious figures!
Here we have:
- (ص) after the name of Muhammad denotes the phrase “salla Allahu alayhi wa salam” (صلى الله عليه وسلم) — Or, “May Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him.”
- (ع) after the names of several of the twelve Shi’ite Imams (though, strangely, not all of them, and it depends on whether you are using Imam or Emam) denotes the phase “alayhi al-salam” (عليه السلام) — Or, “Peace be upon him.”
- (س) after the name of the Muhammad’s daughter Fatima denotes the phrase “salam Allah alayha” (سلام الله عليها) — Or, “May Allah’s peace be upon her.”
- Most bizarrely, after the name of the 12th Imam, al-Mahdi (who, in Shi’ite eschatology, is thought to be alive and will come back at the end of the world to establish ideal rule of Islamic law on earth), the abbreviation (عج) appears. This is an abbreviation for the phrase “ajil Allah farajahu” (عجل الله فرجه) — Or, “May Allah hasten his reappearance.”
These are traditional Shi’ite religious honorifics that have no bearing on the ability to find information on these figures in Farsi. They are purely used to express one’s praise of these figures. Whether machine or human error, it is disturbing that Google Translate would be tacitly endorsing these notions.
Lastly, while the Arabic machine translation appears to be free from these faults — Urdu has similar problems!
Here we have:
- Prophet Muhammad translated as, “Hadrat (a traditional honorific meaning ‘lord’) Muhammad, blessings and peace of Allah upon him.”
- An honorific for the first Islamic caliph after Muhammad, Abu Bakr, “May Allah, the Exalted be pleased with him.”
- And, lastly, after one version (albeit an incorrect spelling) of the second Islamic caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, where Google Translate adds, “Allah’s mercy be upon him.”
I tried to find a contact at Google Translate to raise these concerns rather than posting them publicly — but, like everything with Google, was unable to find an official e-mail address for anyone on the Google Translate team, or locate any means for official recourse.
However, it is also disturbing enough to warrant public treatment.
Let’s hope these are mistakes, and are corrected promptly.
And, to highlight the inanity of it all, just one for the road…