THE PROBLEM OF TRANSLATIONS (AND A COUPLE OF PROBLEMATIC SOLUTIONS). PART 1: THE ROLE OF MACHINE TRANSLATION

This is the English translation of the article in two parts originally in Catalan, which I published in the web El Biblionauta (https://elbiblionauta.com/ca/, November 2021). Here is the second part.

In Douglas Adams’ humorous novel The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (1978), a small, yellow animal known as a Babel fish is used, inserted into one’s ear, as the solution to the problems of universal interlinguistic communication. We’ve all dreamed of a device that fulfils a similar function without the inconvenience of having a living creature near the brain, and a lot of effort is being put into that. Google, it seems, is working to build a universal interpreter inspired by Star Trek, an app (I suppose) easily installable on cellphones. While finding a way to translate live speech, as we all know Google Translate, other services like DeepL and Word itself (in an often overlooked menu option), help us translate written texts from one language to another with an increasing degree of efficiency.

Five years ago, Google Translate, launched in 2006, was in fact transformed into Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), a service that uses an AI-managed neural machine algorithm capable of processing contextual meaning, a feature that partly explains the drastic improvement of machine translation. I guess DeepL works the same way. In recent weeks, as I have already written here, there has been a heated debate about the use of this type of translation in the Spanish subtitles of the Netflix mega-success, the South Korean series Squid Game. As ATRAE (Asociación de Traducción y Adaptación Audiovisual de España) has complained, the multinational Iyuno, of which Netflix is a client, has used automatically generated subtitles for the first time, later revised by a human translator, charging a third of the usual fee (that is, between 60 to 100 euros for a 100-minute film). Post-edition (as this practice is called), ATRAE protests, threatens to destroy many jobs and lower the quality of subtitling. AVTE (Audiovisual Translators Europe) already published last September the Manifesto on Machine Translation (https://avteurope.eu/2021/09/13/press-release-avte-manifesto-on-machine-translation/) where it warned of the deep damage that machine translation will do in the short and long term in the audiovisual field and where it defends the need to achieve better collaboration between human translators and companies that offer powerful machine-based machine translation services.

This debate has not reached the literary world, but I want to start it by taking science fiction and the Catalan language as a case in point. I do not have a clear idea of the fees charged by translators but I understand that a novel of 300 pages in English can cost a few thousand euros (between 2000 and 4000?) to translate. If we think of a sales figure between 100 and 500 copies, we already see that business is limited, even impossible. I don’t quite understand, if I think about it, why there is a certain secrecy around the money it costs to publish a science-fiction book in Catalan, but when I asked several publishers what volume of business they hoped to generate I only got elusive answers. I was going to write that this is a topic for another debate but it is quite the opposite: it is a matter for this one. If we do not know clearly what a translation costs, it is difficult to solve the problem of how to fill the gaps in the publishing market for science fiction in Catalan. I leave aside the delicate issue of subsidies, which is perhaps the real focus of the debate.

The proposal I make below will not please anyone and could even shock many. I take as a case study the English author Richard K. Morgan, whom I just interviewed at Festival 42 and whose work I know entirely in the original English. Morgan has published nine novels (https://www.richardkmorgan.com/books-more/), six of which have been translated into Spanish (one of them, Altered Carbon, twice due to the author’s disagreement with the first translation and the subsequent breach of contract with the publisher). His trilogy about super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs, recently adapted by Netflix, is about to be completed in Spanish, the language in which you can read the first novel (Carbono modificado), the second, Ángeles rotos, and soon the third, Furias desatadas. Also translated are his first novel, Leyes de mercado, and the fantasy trilogy Sólo el acero, El gélido mando, and La impía oscuridad. In contrast, the author’s favorite novel among all the ones he has written and, for me, the best, Black Man (known in the United States as Th3rteen) will probably never be translated into Spanish (unless, of course, Netflix also adapts it). When I insisted to his publisher in Spanish that this was a good work, he replied that he had no doubt that it was, but that it is a novel too long and too little known to be translated. I understand that. It could always be the case that a larger publisher takes over Black Man but assuming that this does not happen I make here a controversial proposal: I would recommend Morgan, and all authors in a similar situation, to subscribe to a machine translation service, pay a translator to review the generated text, and self-publish, either on their own website or on platforms like Amazon (or Lektu … or El Biblionauta).

If no publisher is interested in paying for a translation into Catalan and publishing it, or has no resources, I think Morgan (or any other author in a similar situation) could follow the same method and self-publish in our language. I anticipate the furious protests of publishers and translators, but in all honesty, what should an author do who wants to find a new market in a new language but cannot find a publisher? Is it fair for a work to go unpublished in another language because it’s too expensive to translate or publish? The authors have so far accepted the rules of the game according to which a foreign publisher is the one who chooses to buy the rights and commission the translations, and surely they already have enough work to write for them to embark on new and strange adventures in the world of self-publication. As far as I know, authors never commission translations but expect foreign publishers to do so because it is logically cheaper for them. It’s all a matter, however, of working out expenses. If authors conclude that it is worthwhile to self-publish a translation managed by himself (or his agent), whether using human translators or revised machine translation, there is no obstacle for them to move forward. It all depends, as I say, on what expenses they care to assume.

I have no intention of antagonizing translators, a professional guild that deserves all my respect, nor publishers, but, perhaps because of the imagination of science fiction authors, many things are changing in the field of translation. I had the impression that the use of machine translation was much less widespread than it is in institutions, business and professional fields, but friends who are professional translators have frankly acknowledged to me that they are now basically engaged in revising texts translated by AIs. It could be argued that machine translation is too little advanced and requires deep revisions as expensive as a translation from scratch but this is a diminishing hurdle, as those of us who use machine translation know (I mean in non-literary tasks).

The vision of a world where only AIs are translators and there are no human beings trained in the profession should frighten us all, and it frightens me very deeply, yet I must make the problem of where translation is heading visible. It would be somewhat ironic that science fiction becomes the genre in which revised automatic translations into Catalan could proliferate, but it would be an irony consistent with the very nature of this genre. Perhaps rules can be set, so that only works that no publisher wants to publish, or for which there is no human translator into Catalan, are translated by combining the work of AIs with human work, but it is truly a pity that we cannot access works in other languages because the laws of the publishing market hinder it. If there is no market for some works in some languages (I’m not just talking about English) it would be logical to look for other strategies. These, by the way, should always be legal, no translation can ever be made disrespecting the rights of authors on their work. Thinking of the authors, I think, as I say, that revised machine translation and self-publishing are the most appropriate paths.

If you find this proposal unacceptable, we can focus for the time being on the first proposal (see the first part of this article) and turn El Biblionauta into the seat of a polyglot council of wise readers that can help publishers make beneficial choices for everyone, relating to what science fiction could be translated into Catalan, using human translators and beyond the English language.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

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