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Bias through tech? Google Translate assigns gender roles to Filipino terms

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Mar 18, 2021 6:47 pm Updated Mar 26, 2021 6:56 pm

The Filipino language has always been free from gender bias. With our gender-neutral pronouns like “siya” replacing the “his/her” conundrum, it’s easy for Filipinos to practice neutrality in everyday conversations.

However, a quick Google Translate search proves that while we may not have an ingrained bias, tech companies have quietly embedded it with bias.

On a Twitter thread revealing that Google assigns gender roles to Finnish’s equally neutral terms, Philippine Web Designers Association co-founder Sophia Lucero found that the search engine is doing the same thing with Filipino.

When presented with sentences like "Naglalaba" (doing the laundry), Nag-aalaga siya ng bata," (taking care of the child) and "Sumasayaw" (dancing), Google was quick to assign it to a she

Meanwhile, actions like "namumunuhan,” “naglalaro,” “nagtatrabaho,” and “nagmamaneho” were apparently for men.

“In Filipino we don't have gendered pronouns,” Lucero captioned. 

“These translations from our gender-neutral language into English reveal a lot of bias in the world and in tech”

True enough, Google does automatically assign certain actions to a single gender, even though “siya”’s could be translated into “they” – without losing its core meaning.

Screenshot taken from Google Translate

Despite making recent rounds on social media, the head of Google Translate, Macduff Hughes, previously admitted that their technology still has “a lot of cultural challenges, and linguistic challenges” that ought to be cleared up.

Speaking with The Verge in 2019, Hughes shared that the company has three initiatives to address this: full sentence translation, document translation, and being updated by addressing gender-neutral language patterns.

Because, if you look at the bias problem, there’s no clear answer to what you can do about it,” he furthered. 

“The answer is not to be 50 / 50 or random but to give people more information. To just tell people there’s more than one way to say this thing in this language, and here are the differences between them."

Amid language’s ever-changing landscape, Macduff also admitted that “Really, the rules are changing so fast that even experts can’t keep up.”

Photo from Sophia Lucero's Twitter