• Alysa Salzberg

This translation fail might be a subversive political statement

You may have come across some strange headlines recently, reporting that WeChat, China’s most popular communication and social network, translated the Canadian flag emoji into English as the phrase “He’s in prison.”


Some articles, like this one, brush it off as a glitch, and point out that flag emoji from many other countries were also translated into unrelated phrases. For example, the flag for Bosnia and Herzegovina translates to “He’s in a coma” and the Singaporean flag translates to the phrase, “Hi, Lenny!”


So, with so many strange translations for flag emoji, why the focus on the Canadian flag’s? It turns out that some people see this one as deliberate.


In December 2018, the Chinese government arrested two visiting Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and has kept them detained ever since. The men were charged as dangers to state security, but many Chinese citizens and foreigners alike considered it retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada.


Translating emoji is an unusual feature. Famous translation software like Google Translate don’t offer it as an option. So it could be that the whole situation is indeed just a glitch (which WeChat has since rectified). But it could be something more. WeChat insiders may have used the situation as an opportunity to criticize the Chinese government.


Read on to learn more about the Canadian flag translation controversy.



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