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Chinese translation software blamed in racist sofa outrage

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A Toronto family has been left traumatised after a software translation error led to the dark brown upholstery of their new sofa being labelled "nigger brown", AP reports.

Doris Moore explained that it was her seven-year-old daughter who first spotted the offending tag. She recounted: "My daughter saw the label and she knew the colour brown, but didn't know what the other word meant. She asked, 'Mommy, what colour is that?' I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. I never thought that's how she'd learn of that word."

Moore duly complained to Vanaik Furniture, the store which supplied the couch. The company denied responsibility, fingering the wholesaler, Cosmos Furniture in Toronto. Cosmos's Paul Kumar said: "It's not my fault. It's not the manufacturers' fault."

The blame, it eventually turned out, lay with Kingsoft Corporation - a Beijing-based software company. Huang Luoyi, a product manager for its translation software, told AP the problem lay with an old version of its translation engine: "I know this is a very bad word. We got the definition from a Chinese-English dictionary. We've been using the dictionary for 10 years. Maybe the dictionary was updated, but we probably didn't follow suit."

Kingsoft described the sorry affair as a "regrettable error", but this cut little ice with Moore. She said the matter had "taken a toll on her family", and is accordingly seeking compensation. She is reportedly consulting lawyers and last week "filed a report with the Ontario Human Rights Commission".

She said: "Something more has to be done. We don't just need a personal apology, but someone needs to own up to where these labels were made, and someone needs to apologise to all people of colour. I had friends over from St Lucia yesterday and they wouldn't sit on the couch." ®

Bootnote

Romesh Vanaik of Vanaik Furniture described the sofa in question as a "best seller". He said he'd checked the rest of his stock, but hadn't found any similarly-offensive labels.

Apparently, the whole mix-up might be the result of a mis-spelling/mistranslation of "Niger Brown" - a term for a dark, chocolate colour, although not much used these days. Thanks to those readers who pointed this out.

Oh yes, and thanks to El Reg's old chum Chris Winpenny for the heads-up.

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