Firefox Translation Errors: “Snake people in Berlin”

A photograph of defeated Nazis standing in line, begging for handouts, gets a curious translation from the new Firefox client-side engine.

Here’s the original, an image with a caption in German on the “official capital portal”:


Here’s the FireFox browser translation to English:


That can’t be right. The guy in the middle is still sporting the Hitler mustache (like he didn’t get the message), and Nazis were characterized as snakes, but could that alone be enough to trigger such a caption by “learning” technology?

Confusing matters perhaps further is that a East-German politician named Stefan Heym called West Berlin the snake when he said it would get indigestion from eating the hedgehog (East Berlin).

Nach Ansicht des Schriftstellers Stefan Heym wird nach dem Wahlergebnis von der DDR „nichts übrigbleiben als eine Fußnote in der Weltgeschichte”. Heym weiter: „Die Schlange verschluckt den Igel, die Schlange wird Verdauungsschwierigkeiten haben.”

Anyway, let’s break it down. Schlange stehende Menschen

Schlange: literally means snake. Allegedly it comes from an Old High German word “slango”, similar to Yiddish שלאַנג (schlang – penis). On that note, I’m a little disappointed Firefox didn’t translate it to “bunch of dicks”.

Stehende: literally means standing, an adjective formed from the verb “stehen” (to stand).

Somehow the literal German words “standing snake” were turned by the Firefox translation engine into SNAKE PEOPLE.

Now for the really fun part. ChatGPT says that everyone knows the phrase “Schlange stehende” really means standing in line.

You’d think that’s a simple and set answer.

Except, do you think ChatGPT really knows what it’s talking about…ever? See how confident it sounds that everyone knows “schlange stehende” is a common German phrase? So confident that immediately afterwards it contradicts itself, as if trying to win votes by saying anything, just to make you agree with something. Everything it says is a hallucination, always, and usually politically motivated.

ChatGPT is literally arguing that “schlange stehende” is not a valid German phrase. And then it tries to rationalize snakes are unable to stand. Both are laughably useless, proving AI continues to fail at basic life tasks, given that it’s a common well-known phrase in German and of course snakes can be standing around figuratively.

FireFox looked like it made a silly, overly literal mistake. But ChatGPT opens up the possibility that machine learning has a much deeper translation problem.

Consider how ChatGPT will probably never improve itself because fundamentally, like that intellectual theory depicting Berlin as a snake eating a hedgehog, the OpenAI ingestion machine stands at the bottom of a huge mine of complex shifting political and social sands.

Snake people? SNAKE PEOPLE? In 1945 Berlin? That’s saying something well-known but rarely said. To put it simply, Aesop’s simple fables might even be in the corpus being used to translate German.

Nazis are depicted as snakes because they are cruel, sinister authoritarians known for deceitfulness.

In that sense, the historian in me can’t help wondering about a dehumanizing 1945 SNAKE PEOPLE IN BERLIN caption that is… not as silly or innocent in translation as it would seem at first glance.

“We Will Eradicate the Spies and Saboteurs, the Trotskyist-Bukharinist Agents of Fascism.” Sergei Igumnov, 1937

One thought on “Firefox Translation Errors: “Snake people in Berlin””

  1. It’s a clumsy translation by Firefox but I can see how it has happened. In British English – and possibly in other versions – a queue of people can be said to “snake around a building”.

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