I caught this revealing error on the always entertaining Photoshop Disasters and thought it was too good to resist pointing out here:

Bag of Jasmin Rice

The picture, of course, is a bag of Tao brand jasmine rice for sale in Germany. The error is pretty obvious if you understand a little German: the phrase transparentes sichtfeld literally means transparent field of view. In this case, the phrase is a note written by the graphic designer of the rice bag’s packaging that was never meant to be read by a consumer. The phrase is supposed to indicate to someone involved in the bag’s manufacture than the pink background on which the text is written is supposed to remain unprinted (i.e., as transparent plastic) so that customers get a view directly onto the rice inside the bag.

The error, of course, is that the the pink background and the text was never removed. This was possible, in part, because the the pink background doesn’t look horribly out of place on the bag. A more important factor, however, is the fact that the person printing the bag and bagging the rice almost certainly didn’t speak German.

In this sense, this bears a lot of similarity with some errors I’ve written up before — e.g., the Welsh autoresponder and the Translate server error restaurant. And as in those cases, there are takeaways here about all the things we take for granted when communicating using technology — things we often don’t realize until language barriers make errors like this thrust hidden processes into view.

This error revealed a bit of the processes through which these bags of rice are produced and a little bit about the people and the division of labor that helped bring it to us. Ironically, this error is revealing precisely through the way that the bag fails to reveal its contents.

The Case of the Welsh Autoresponder

Last year, I talked about some of the dangers of machine translation that resulted in a Chinese restaurant advertised as “Translate Server Error” and another restaurant serving “Stir Fried Wikipedia.” This article from the BBC a couple months ago shows that embarassing translation errors are hardly limited to either China or to machine translation systems.

Mistranslated Welsh road sign

The English half of the sign is printed correctly and says, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” Clearly enough, the point of the sign is to prohibit truck drivers from entering a residential neighborhood.

Since the sign was posted in Swansea, Wales, the bottom half of the sign is written in Welsh. The translation of the Welsh is, “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

It’s not too hard to piece together what happened. The bottom half of the sign was supposed to be a translation of the English. Unfortunately, the person ordering the sign didn’t speak Welsh. When he or she sent it off to be translated, they received a quick response from an email autoresponder explaining that the email’s intended recipient was temporarily away and that they would be back soon — in Welsh.

Unfortunately, the representative of the Swansea council thought that the autoresponse message — which is coincidentally, about the right length — was the translation. And onto the sign it went. The autoresponse system was clearly, and widely, revealed by the blunder.

One thing we can learn from this mishap is simply to be wary of hidden intermediaries. Our communication systems are long and complex; every message passes through dozens of computers with a possibility of error, interception, surveillance, or manipulation at every step. Although the representative of the Swansea council thought they were getting a human translation, they, in fact, never talked to a human at all. Because the Swansea council didn’t expect a computerized autoresponse, they didn’t consider that the response was not sent by the recipient.

Another important lesson, and one also present in the Chinese examples, is that software needs to give users responses in the language they are interacting in to be interpreted correctly. In the translation context where users plan to use, but may not understand, their program’s output, this is often impossible. That’s why when a person has someone, or some system, translate into a language they do not speak, they open themselves up to these types of errors. If a user does not understand the output of a system they are using, they are put completely at the whim of that system. The fact that we usually do understand our technology’s output provides a set of “sanity checks” that can keep this power in check. We are so susceptible to translation errors because these checks are necessarily removed.