Translators discuss prospects and concerns posed by AI, 06 16, 2023

At a forum linked to the Fishing Fortress Science Fiction Awards held on June 10 in Hechuan, Chongqing, several translators shared strategies to adapt to the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) taking over their industry.

Translators and publishers discuss the impact of AI on translation at a forum held during a sci-fi event at the Fishing Fortress Science Fiction College under Chongqing College of Mobile Communication in Hechuan, Chongqing, June 10, 2023. [Photo courtesy of Fishing Fortress Science Fiction College]

Prominent sci-fi writer and translator, Baoshu, voiced concern about the increasing reliance on AI in translation. He pointed out that while AI can effectively translate regular texts, it falters with complex pieces, such as literary and philosophical classics by Shakespeare and Plato. Baoshu emphasized the irreplaceable role of human translators, with their superior literary and academic insights, in ensuring accurate and nuanced translations. Therefore, the demand for human translators is high because AI cannot comprehend the deep meanings of particular texts.

San Feng, a sci-fi researcher, translator and critic, recounted his positive experience using AI apps to write emails in foreign languages and for academic translations. He introduced his "90%:10%" theories for future translation. The first rule states that AI can autonomously translate 90% of scenarios and texts, with the remaining 10% encompassing complex works like those highlighted by Baoshu, requiring human translators' thinking, judgment and discernment. The second rule proposes that, even in projects requiring human intervention, 90% of the work can be done by AI, leaving the remaining 10% to expert human translators for fine-tuning and artistic processing.

However, he also expressed concern about AI infringing upon human language learning, as understanding foreign languages profoundly impacts human existence, thoughts and emotions. He added that individuals who want to excel in top-notch 10% of translation work must thoroughly understand the language. "It is best not to entrust language training entirely to machines. The more serious problem is that AI will affect students' language learning and development," he said.

Ding Zicheng, renowned for translating numerous Japanese sci-fi works under the penname Ding Dingchong, who received the sci-fi translator achievement award later that day, concurred that AI has improved translation efficiency. Nevertheless, he questioned whether AI could master the remaining 10% in the future. While AI benefits those who cannot master foreign languages, it poses a significant crisis for translators. As of now, nobody can resist the unstoppable trend of AI in translation, and "all we can do is to make the best use of AI as a supplementary tool to improve our efficiency and skills," he stated.

Zhao Feng, CEO of Bofeng Culture, reported that his company recently used AI to create a traditional cultural book with text and images within a mere 20 days, devoid of human intervention. He envisaged similar benefits for literary translation, expecting AI to save time, reduce costs, and enhance quality. Although human processing is still necessary, AI's self-learning and programming abilities will make it superior to humans over the long run. He also warned that an over-reliance on machines in translation could lead to difficult-to-resolve copyright issues.

"AI's learning capacity is more than a thousand times that of humans. It can program itself, self-improve, and self-learn. We should look at it like we look at a person and a top student. Therefore, it will continue to learn and improve itself and become a top translator. It could even develop consciousness," he predicted.

Mao Rui, a teacher from Shanghai International Studies University and Polish translator who won the best non-English translator award for her translation of Stanisław Lem's "Cyberiada," noted that AI's impact on translation and translators is multi-layered and multi-faceted.

"The speed and efficiency of AI are undeniable, but perhaps life is not necessarily good just because it is fast. Through translating and reading, we accumulate our emotions, converse with the author, and converse with ourselves. Although AI machines are powerful, they seem to lack the ability to sense subtle differences in the real world that humans have," she explained.

Mao expressed concern that as AI evolves, human translation could become a luxury that not everyone can afford. "In any case, I hope that reading and literature will not become luxuries, and I hope that more people can partake in their joy," she added.

San Feng concluded on a broader note, stating that despite the perceived threat to translators, AI translation, from the perspective of human civilization as a whole, could "break down language barriers, rebuild the Tower of Babel, greatly promote cultural exchanges, and be an absolute boon for the progress of human civilization," he added.