Between Pomegranates and Grenades: When Artificial Intelligence Fails to Translate
On Friday night (27 October), a tourist from Azerbaijan, who felt unwell, entered the restaurant Portugália, in Cais do Sodré, in Lisbon, looking for a pomegranate to help with his discomfort. Given that he didn’t speak Portuguese, he used a translation app on his phone. He wrote the word “pomegranate” in his native language (граната), which was incorrectly translated to “grenade”. An alarmed restaurant employee alerted authorities, triggering a rapid response from the Public Security Police and the Special Police Unit.
The situation was only clarified upon further investigation, which revealed a fault in machine translation to be the cause of the misunderstanding.
This incident, initially interpreted as a serious threat, was broadcast live on Portuguese television.
The narrative changed the next day when it was revealed that the translation error was the real cause of the commotion. This case not only caused embarrassment and distress to the tourist in question, but it also shed light on the limitations of machine translation technologies and the crucial importance of thorough human proofreading.
While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is driving innovation and efficiency, it is vital to recognise and mitigate the associated risks. Artificial intelligence, while promising, brings with it potential risks of reliability, impartiality, interpretation, data security and the need for rigorous checks. Lack of internal preparation and verification can lead to unexpected results, with reputational damage and legal action, or even financial losses or operational disruptions.
Machine translation is a promising field for Artificial Intelligence, however, as the incident this weekend in Lisbon demonstrated, a simple translation error can have worrying consequences. It is essential that organisations and individuals are aware of the limitations of Artificial Intelligence, and that human review and verification mechanisms are in place to ensure the accuracy and reliability of translated text.
Interestingly, linguistic confusion does not occur in all languages, as the etymology of the word “Pomegranate” differs. The etymological roots of the word “Pomegranate” probably derive either from the Latin “Malum Granatum”, which translates as “Grainy Apple”, or from the Arabic “Rummān” (“Pomegranate”). While in Portuguese the term for the fruit, “Pomegranate”, evolved from Arabic, in languages such as Spanish, French, English, German and Russian, the name of the fruit derived from the Latin term. “Malum” is the Latin word for apple, and “Granatum” refers to the fruit’s grainy appearance.
The word for the explosive device, “Grenade”, also has a curious etymology; the resemblance of a grenade’s shape with that of a Pomegranate, possibly due to the fact that it is filled with small grains of gunpowder, similar to the seeds of the fruit, inspired its name.
Thus in Portuguese, we have the adoption of the Arabic term “Rummān” for Pomegranate and the European term “Granada” for the explosive, derived from the Latin “Granatum”.
However, in languages such as English and French, the etymological link between the fruit and the explosive is more direct. In English, Pomegranate is translated as “Pomegranate”, where “Pome” derives from the French “Pomme” (apple) and “Granate” from the Latin “Grānātum”. The term for grenade is “Grenade”, which also evokes the Latin origin of the name. Similarly, in French, the Pomegranate is known as “Grenade”, just like the explosive device.
The similarities continue in German, where the Pomegranate is called “Granatapfel”, slightly different from “Granate”, which refers to a projectile packed with explosives.
This play on words and the etymological evolution of the terms highlight the complex nuances of translation, demonstrating the need for a deep cultural understanding to avoid misunderstandings, especially when relying on machine translation.
At M21 Global, we know the importance of delivering accurate and correct translations and we understand how essential the work, experience and competence of human translators is for translation. These events remind us of our mission to provide high-quality translation services, ensuring that communication between different cultures and languages is clear, accurate and free from misunderstandings.
Artificial Intelligence and machine translation technologies continue to evolve, but until they can match the understanding, empathy, and cultural nuance that humans provide, human review and oversight remain indispensable.
This incident, which might be seen by most people as a ludicrous and somewhat humorous scenario, was probably a traumatic incident for the Azerbaijani tourist. A small detail takes on alarming proportions; a reminder of the long road we still have ahead of us in the quest for infallible machine translation.
“Tourist accidentally makes bomb threat by mistranslating Portuguese word for ‘pomegranate’” – https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/tourist-bomb-threat-portugal-grenade-pomegranate-b2438915.html
“Man uses translator app to threaten to throw a grenade inside the Portugália restaurant in Cais do Sodré – https://www.cmjornal.pt/portugal/detalhe/homem-usa-tradutor-para-ameacar-lancar-granada-dentro-do-restaurante-portugalia-no-cais-do-sodre
“He asked for “pomegranate” but showed “grenade”: Translator app betrays customer and causes alert in Cais de Sodré” – https://www.cmjornal.pt/portugal/detalhe/troca-de-roma-por-granada-da-alerta-no-cais-de-sodre – paywall
The Result Of Unchecked AI: Balancing The Benefits And The Risks – https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2023/05/26/the-result-of-unchecked-ai-balancing-the-benefits-and-the-risks/? sh=58bd12cd3ff1