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/

THE PROBLEM OF TRANSLATIONS (AND A COUPLE OF PROBLEMATIC SOLUTIONS). PART 1: THE SELECTION OF ORIGINALS

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).

It is common to celebrate from time to time the novelty of the publication in Catalan of foreign works of science fiction or fantasy, but it is not so common to reflect on the dynamics that make it possible for these works to reach our language. And on the contrary: although not so often, we are happy when we receive news of the translation of a work of the fantastic in Catalan into a foreign language, despite not even knowing how these little miracles happen. I therefore open a reflection on this topic that will lead, as will be seen, to two bold proposals described in two different articles, one of which is sure to create controversy (see part 2).

So far, things work as follows: publishers decide independently which authors and books they want to translate into Catalan, buy the rights, commission a translation, have it corrected, publish it, and sell it to the reading public with more or less success. However, there is no committee that carries a list of works which would be interesting to translate into Catalan (or from Catalan to other languages), so that in the set of translated works there are always important shortcomings of both classics and novelties. Some works were translated a long time ago but are out of print, others were not translated at the time of their highest popularity and it seems that they will never be translated, and current authors do not find anyone to publish them in Catalan even when they are known. in their language and, why not say it, in Spanish.

The first proposal I make, then, is to make El Biblionauta the headquarters of a committee of science fiction, fantasy and horror readers in Catalan that can advise local publishers and turn the market for books translated into Catalan into an environment. much more consistent than it is now. I’m well aware that readers are volatile and that we don’t always buy the books we want to read (which is why there are libraries, friends, and various illegal resources). I would say, however, that if between 100 and 300 people express the opinion that it would be desirable to translate certain foreign titles, Catalan publishers would so do more confidently than simply relying on their own intuition, or sales in the original language.

The committee’s idea is also applicable to the translation of Catalan into other languages. When I translated Mecanoscrit del segon origen into English, a novel that had already been translated into fourteen other languages but incredibly not into English, I realized that neither the publishers nor the institutions (whether the Institut Ramon Llull or directly the Conselleria de Cultura) monitor which Catalan books are translated into other languages. To be fair, the IRL does offer a database of books in Catalan that could be of interest to translate (https://www.llull.cat/catala/literatura/books_catalan.cfm ) but this is not specific enough in relation in science fiction, fantasy and horror. I don’t see why the readers of El Biblionauta shouldn’t be in charge of managing a list of Catalan works in these genres that would be desirable to publish in other languages. Obviously, it would be easier for Catalan publishers to look at the list of foreign works recommended by readers than for foreign publishers to look at a list of Catalan works, but it’s all about getting started.

In the middle of writing this article I had the pleasure of being a spectator at the new Festival 42 (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/ca) of the round table ‘New genre classics in Catalan: A boom with Adams, Dick, Le Guin, Butler, Matheson, King, Poe, Bradbury, Lovecraft and those who will soon follow…’, moderated by Miquel Codony and with the participation of Jordi Casals, Jordi Llavoré, Antoni Munné-Jordà, Martí Sales and Isabel del Río. The table was a celebration of the work that publishers such as Males Herbes, Mai Més Llibres, Chronos, Laertes, Raig Verd, L’Altra, Periscopi, Pagès, Kalandraka and Edicions SECC, among others, have been doing for about ten years in two ways: expanding the list of Catalan translations of foreign science fiction, fantasy and horror classics and recovering out-of-print editions, updating them. This is a very laudable job, without a doubt, but I myself was in charge of questioning a very important point in a brief intervention, when I protested, as an English philologist, that English is too important in this boom. The word ‘classic’ can’t be limited to English-language science fiction, I insisted, but that’s what’s happening right now.

This is not a new opinion in my thinking but it’s true that a conversation during the festival with Italian publisher and novelist Francesco Verso opened my eyes a little bit more. Verso commented to me that, as the University of Rochester’s Three Percent website warns (https://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/about/), only 3% of all books published in the United States is a translation, including books of all genres. Rachel Cordasco, a friend of Verso, has an impressive database of speculative fiction works translated into English on her website SF in Translation (https://www.sfintranslation.com/) and has just published Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (2021), described as a guide. Verso himself is pursuing a truly international language policy as a publisher, looking for translators of all possible languages, as he told me, and remunerating them in the same way as English translators to encourage them to do more work. The website of his publishing project (https://www.futurefiction.org/) includes a world map where many authors can be found outside the Anglo-American sphere.

A very important problem, then, is that neither readers nor publishers of genre fiction in Catalan know enough about other languages. To be better informed you can use resources such as Francesco Verso’s map, Rachel Cordasco’s website and guide, or academic books such as Dale Knickerbocker’s, Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from around the World (2018). This book is part of the growing wave of interest in the Anglo-American academic world for speculative fiction in other languages, of which the new book Science Fiction in Translation: Perspectives on the Global Theory and Practice of Translation, edited by Ian Campbell and in which I myself participate, is also part. In my review of Knickerbocker’s volume (https://www.revistahelice.com/revista_textos/n_27/Helice 2019 Fall-Winter MARTIN ALEGRE BABEL FISH URGENTLY NEEDED.pdf) I complained about how frustrating it is to read a book of this kind full of very attractive reading suggestions lacking translations. The editor, on the other hand, complained about the lack of academic specialists in speculative fiction written in languages other than English or in non-Anglo-American territories (there is, for example, African science fiction in English).

It is easy to understand why the current translation boom is basically linked to the Anglo-American classics since they are the ones we all know, but I think there is an important contradiction between the status of Catalan as a small language among those spoken in world, and the little attention we pay to science fiction in languages similar to ours. This leads me to think that the committee of wise readers I was talking about should be polyglot, if not individually at least as a whole. Both Francesco Verso and my co-editor at Hélice magazine, Mariano Martín, are admirable polyglots, and their mastery of diverse languages gives them a comparative knowledge of the space of international science fiction that is simply incomparable. Hearing them engage in a conversation about Bulgarian science fiction a few days ago was a pleasure but, again, a frustration because no text is translated into Catalan.

So I get to the point where I have to express a very strange feeling: I miss the Catalan translation of genre books (science fiction, fantasy, horror) from other languages whose existence I am unaware of. As Francesco Verso told me, we have reached a situation in which not only first-class classics but also second- and third-rate works in English are being translated because they reach us through the powerful Anglo-American distribution machinery. Meanwhile, first-rank works in other languages –both classics and novelties, in large or small languages– go unnoticed, just as Catalan works go unnoticed among international readers. I understand that it is too much to ask that Catalan readers and publishers suddenly become polyglots aware of the current state of the science fiction published abroad, beyond the English language, but that is what we need. Either we do this or we look for bilingual or polyglot people who can inform us and, above all, who can translate into Catalan other traditions yet to be discovered.

In the second part of this article, I explain the role that artificial intelligence could play in this process. Keep reading …

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/

SQUID GAME AND THE DANGERS OF MACHINE TRANSLATION: A WARNING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 1 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I am not following Netflix’s South Korean mega-hit Squid Game, being currently off the platform, but I have noticed that the series has attracted much controversy about an issue few people really care about: the quality of the subtitles. What is remarkable is how different the controversies are depending on the linguistic area. For English speakers the problem seems to be whether the subtitles are truly accurate and how much is lost in translation. For Spanish speakers that was also the issue until the audiovisual professional translators called attention, a couple of weeks ago, to the use of automatic translation for the subtitles. I find the problem of accuracy far less urgent right now than the matter of automatic translation, which is not being properly addressed and will have huge consequences in the near future. See how.

As we all know, English is the dominant audiovisual language but the immense popularity of some foreign-language series on the streaming platforms, and the generally low quality of dubbing into English, has forced many spectators to use subtitles. I’m following a CNET article, “Still watching Squid Game on Netflix? Change this subtitle setting immediately” by Jennifer Bisset (https://www.cnet.com/news/watching-squid-game-on-netflix-change-this-subtitle-setting-asap/) to present the problem affecting the spectators using English subtitles to follow the series’ original Korean-language dialogue. All was more or less well until Korean Tik-Tok and Twitter users started protesting about how much the English subtitles missed, from glaring errors to matters of nuance. Bisset warns, like others have done, that although perfect accuracy cannot be achieved, the English subtitles option works much better than the English Closed Captions option for the deaf and hard of hearing, which most spectators use. The English CC subtitles, she explains, are “often autogenerated” and, in Squid Game apparently “a closer match to the English dub than the English subtitles”. The English subtitles which she recommends are not, unlike the English dub, forced to adapt translation to lip-synching, and are, thus, more accurate, though not necessarily error-free, as many Korean speakers have also pointed out. It’s, then, a case, of choosing between the bad and the worse, but not an experience exclusive to this series or to the English-speaking world. As I know from having watched thousands of English-language movies and series with Spanish subtitles the errors are many. They often show that this kind of translation is done in a hurry by underpaid translators lacking sufficient experience (apologies to the ones who are experienced but anyway underpaid).

For the Spanish case, I’m following the article by Héctor Llanos Martínez, “Los traductores españoles protestan por los ‘mediocres’ subtítulos de El juego del calamar, hechos por una máquina” [Spanish translators protest against the machine-made ‘mediocre’ subtitles of Squid Game] for El País (https://elpais.com/television/2021-10-14/los-traductores-espanoles-protestan-por-los-mediocres-subtitulos-de-el-juego-del-calamar-hechos-por-una-maquina.html). Llanos reports that ATRAE, the Asociación de Traducción y Adaptación Audiovisual de España, has complained that Netflix employs a multinational company specializing in automatic translation, Iyuno (https://iyuno-sdi.com/), which produces subtitles later edited by a person working at a third of the translators’ habitual rate. This technique, called post-edition, is what we all use when automatically translating a text that we later revise. According to ATRAE, a translator receives 60 to 100 euros for supervising a 100-minute film, which is awfully low, though getting 300 euros for translating the whole movie doesn’t look too good, either. The ATRAE spokespersons have noted that the AIs generating automatic translation do not understand context, subtext, or wordplay and miss many nuances that a human translator would not miss (though, as I have noted, subtitling is not at all the most accurate type of translation). ATRAE suggests that Netflix may have been unaware of the controversial methods used to translate Squid Game, apparently the first series using post-edition, in view of the care it put into the correct translation of La casa de papel (Money Heist). Llanos comments that Audiovisual Translators Europe (AVTE) had already blacklisted Iyuno in 2020. He also notes that Netflix has declined to make any comments.

AVTE, precisely, released last September an 18-page long Manifesto on Machine Translation decrying the practice (https://avteurope.eu/2021/09/13/press-release-avte-manifesto-on-machine-translation/). The 10 points of the summary include the following declarations: “We do not believe that fully automated localization processes are likely to happen anytime soon”, “Although proponents of MT claim that efficiency gains are guaranteed, fixing a poor translation can take longer than translating the same text from scratch”, “To reinforce sustainability, translators’ working conditions need to be improved”, and “Translators are often not aware that their work is used to train MT engines, nor are they remunerated for this”. This only shows how desperate the situation is beginning to be for professional human translators. We all know, having the experience of using Google Translate, Word’s own translation feature, or other automatic translators such as DeepL that MT has improved enormously in the last five years. In fact, we have all contributed to that, for the AIs are learning from the texts we ask them to translate, constantly improving with practice. I have no idea what I am saying here but Google Translate, which launched in 2006, switched in 2016 to Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), MT which uses an AI-powered neural machine translation algorithm capable of processing contextual meaning (much closer to a human brain, then). That explains the dramatic improvement.

My own use of MT means that what would take me 90 minutes to translate from scratch can be ready for uploading in 20 minutes, or less, of revision, which is a great advantage. So, sorry ATRAE and AVTE but in five more years, MT might be as accurate as any human translator, if not more, being already incredibly faster. “Fixing a poor translation” might be by then a concept entirely of the past. I have nothing against translators, quite the opposite: they are professionals I admire profoundly. Yet, it would be naïve to think that any manifestos can stop the march of technology and, above all, the march of greedy, mean capitalism in its search for the lowest-priced acceptable translation. Squid Game’s post-edition methods are just the first sign of what is soon coming. I am not sounding a death knell for professional translation but being realistic.

To my immense surprise, two friends who work as professional translators in public institutions (not as literary or film translations), acknowledged to me recently that the use of MT is common, and that their job consists now of revising rather than translating from scratch. I assume this is the same in many other professional and business environments, and I also assume that many academics with little money to spare from their research projects might choose post-edition translation over the far more expensive translation from scratch. One thing we must be clear about is that MT cannot work without revision: you may take Google Translate and have your academic article translated into Mandarin Chinese believing it to be accurate, but only a native speaker of the target language can determine accuracy. It might well be, then, that translators are sought in the future mainly as revisers. This is the part that scares me very much, not just because the wages of professional translators might be drastically cut and their extremely important task undermined but because if the profession is so badly hit that no young person wants to train as a translator, we run the risk of losing translation altogether as a human pursuit. The vision of a world in which all translators are AI is a frightening dystopia, as it would put a most important tool of human communication outside human reach. Many people believe that a native bilingual person, or someone who learns a second language, can easily translate but becoming a translator requires serious professional training. Who, however, would think of investing long years in that kind of training to compete with super-efficient AIs? And how many people really understand the long-term danger of trusting all translation to AIs?

On the other hand, MT opens up new possibilities worth considering that might enrich the cultural field. Suppose you are an author seeking international publication but failing to find interested foreign publishers. You are being told that the cost of translating and revising your book is too steep, and that expected sales make taking risks of this kind pure gamble. Well, you could self-translate using MT, pay for a professional revision and market your book directly in, say, five foreign languages, through Amazon, or similar platforms, or your own website. Just to give an example, this week I will be interviewing for the new Festival 42 British author Richard Morgan, a relatively well-known SF author whose novels Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies have been adapted by Netflix using the title of the first book. Both Woken Furies and Black Man (known as Th3rteen in the USA), Morgan’s own favourite novel among his production, remain untranslated into Spanish because his publisher lacks the resources. Why shouldn’t Morgan pay for MT plus revision (by a professional translator or an academic like yours truly) and have the novels published as he chooses? He owns copyright, after all. I am well aware that this may sound as anathema to professional translators, but I am contemplating the same process to translate into Spanish my own book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort, in view of the dozen Spanish publishers that have rejected it. And, yes, MT has a downside for authors, as you will see if you check MT and copyright on Google: the generation of illegal translations of foreign-language work which do not respect author’s copyright. You might find your own book on Amazon translated into another language, but let it be known that this is illegal, as copyright always belongs to you. So, get there before others do…

A last matter worries me: if I use a translation tool to translate this post, the copyright is still mine, in the same way the copyright of the original text belongs to me and not to Microsoft’s Word, which I use to write it. The software to write and translate is a tool, and not an entity which can own copyright. However, being an avid reader of SF I am familiar with the trope of the AI which becomes sentient and demands to be seen as a full person. If AIs are eventually granted a legal status as persons (as some animals are being granted now), this means that whatever they do, including translation, will be subjected to copyright laws (human translators retain copyright over their translations). The singularity so often announced might happen in 2099 rather than 2022, but it will certainly happen, unless of course climate change wipes us all out. So, brace yourselves for a very strange world in which literary translations, to name the ones closest to my heart, will be signed by AIs bearing personal names. Brave new world… though not for professional translators and, as much as like the idea of AIs, for human cross-language communication.

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/