When Facebook’s system finds a word that does not have a translation, it makes a guess and replaces it with a word with similar syllables, Mr. Stone said. After running tests, Facebook found that multiple Burmese words starting with “xi” and “shi” translated to the vulgarity in English.
U Po Myint, the chairman of the China Myanmar Friendship Association, said he thought that Facebook may have intentionally mistranslated Mr. Xi’s name because there are other more likely renderings of his given name in Burmese.
“But Facebook already apologized for their mistake so we can forgive,” Mr. Po Myint said.
Kenneth Wong, a Burmese language instructor at the University of California in Berkeley, Calif., also said that when he first saw the translation he thought someone intentionally made it to embarrass Mr. Xi.
But on closer inspection of the original Burmese post, Mr. Wong said, he could see how a machine would make that error. Mr. Xi’s name sounds similar to “chi kyin phyin,” which roughly translates to “feces hole buttocks” in Burmese, Mr. Wong said.
Greg Garvey, a professor of game design and development at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., said there were multiple explanations for how this might have occurred. When the translation system finds a word that doesn’t have a direct translation, it should put in a replacement word using the context of the rest of the sentence and data from millions of Facebook users.
Excluding malicious intent, Mr. Garvey said the vulgarity would have been used only if the system’s algorithm found it made sense based on Facebook’s trove of user data.
The exception, Mr. Garvey said, would be if there were words that corresponded in Burmese to the vulgarity — a happenstance that Mr. Wong and Facebook said did, in fact, occur.
Saw Nang contributed reporting from Mandalay, Myanmar.