When the political scientist Steven Weber compared translation to transportation, he was talking of ideas and knowledge not of people and goods. Instead of a horse-drawn carriage, it's now a process of accelerated multilingual communication, especially with the use of AI tools. Since the adoption of neural networks in 2015, translation algorithms have greatly improved. Academic publishers have been using AI since 2018, and trade publishing soon followed suit. So, what role does the human play in all this? Especially in terms of the creative practice that involves a myriad of choices. This word or that? Style-specific preferences? Should a text be translated from scratch, or could it be run through AI translation software first? And what is fit for purpose?

Mightier than the sword

Some translation companies employ humans to edit machine-translated books, aiming "to maintain the quality of traditional translations", offering savings to publishers and "market rates" to linguists. The threat of being undercut by machines is an ongoing concern for translators. In a recent survey, the European Council of Literary Translators' Associations recommends that professionals avoid editing AI-generated texts or charge translation rates for such work. In this age of jet-propelled information, translating by hand could become the new green travel.

While they have often been overlooked in the artistic and literary process, translators have long claimed they have the power to change everything – the pen is mightier than the sword. There are tales of cities destroyed with just a slip of the pen, such as the supposed translation error that allegedly led to the US deciding to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Cultural Intelligence

Yilin Wang, a translator, poet and editor who lives in Vancouver, claims that translation is an art, saying that "it takes me just as long to translate a poem as it takes for me to write an original one in English. I have to work hard to research the poet, the times they're living in, and the literary forms they're working in, then find creative ways to convey the spirit of their work in English. Classic Chinese poetry has many cultural idioms, archaic diction, and completely different grammar and syntactical structures to English." To get translations like this right, AI needs CI (Cultural Intelligence), and this is where the human experience has the upper hand.

Invisible but indispensable

Sara Crofts, the chief executive of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, emphasised that translators played a vital role in building bridges between nations and cultures. "Yet very often their work is undervalued and invisible. The sign of a good translation is that the reader isn't aware that it is even a translation, making the translators' work, by definition, unseen." A good translator is a bit like an embedded software system – invisible but indispensable. The advance of AI is absolutely inevitable, and if tools include AI features that give us more choice and control over the results, so much the better. Computer-assisted translation can offer added value, often taking away the blood, sweat and tears of the translation effort, in much the same way that an electric screwdriver speeds up the assembly process. When translating, we need all the tools we can get. AI might be considered as another vehicle that allows us to navigate the multilingual expanses of knowledge but it is CI that enables the crucial work of human translators to be effective in shaping the sharp end of the result.

- Chris