Eurovision 2018 was winner Netta Barzilai’s finest hour, and moment of national pride for all of Israel. But the joy was marred by a technological blunder: Microsoft’s automatic translator Bing might have been responsible for an international gender snafu, all because it doesn’t get the Israeli slang expression kapara.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praise her on his social network accounts, and spoke to Barzilai on the phone during the broadcast. The premier called Barzilai "wonderful," and told her she "charmed the whole world." He concluded by saying she was Israel's greatest ambassador.
English speakers trying to understand exactly what Netanyahu was going for in his congratulations tweet to Barzilai were in for a shock. One Colin Forsyth posted that he was worried about the translation from Hebrew on Bing for Netanyahu’s comment, and attached a photo of the offending tweet: “Neta, you’re a real cow.”
Another post noted that things didn’t go well in Spanish either, where the comment in Hebrew was rendered: “Neta eres una verdara vaca” – same idea.
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A nasty tweet from Jordan from a female apparent Israel critic from Jordan: “This is the first time I agree with Microsoft.”
The first time Israel won was in 1978 with the song "Ah-Bah-Nee-Bee," performed by Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta. Israel won again the following year with the song "Hallelujah," and in 1998, artist Dana International won over the judges and audience with the song "Diva."
But don’t blame Netanyahu for Bing’s blunder. The Hebrew word kapara, which actually means atonement (that’s what Google Translate did with it), has morphed into a slang term of affection or blessing. Bing arrived at its bizarre bovine term because the word kapara contains the three Hebrew letters that also spell “cow,” which automatically translated with no context, could be mistakenly rendered “like a cow.”
Isaac Herzog, the head of Israel's opposition, had a bit more luck, with Bing translating his happy blessing into one of atonement.
By the early morning, a few hours after Barzilai's win, Bing had atoned for its sins and offered a more accurate translation. As Netta Barzilai would say, "kapara on Bing."