PILL: The Uncanny Stickiness of AI and Foreign Language Book Translation

The short story hinges on the conversations between a well respected book translator and the AI model assisting them in the translation of a popular and recently deceased foreign author’s now-posthumous and overstuffed novel. The AI has been trained on the author’s entire body of work; a scholarly awareness of style and intent as well as the contexts and tones of the requisite languages the words need translation into, with enough success and time/cost savings to lead the author’s estate and the publishing house to mandate the model’s use. In this story world, career translators collaborating with AI is still rare given how few books are popular enough to require cross border translation, let alone be asked to be peer-reviewed by a human at all anymore.

The conflict that arises isn’t revolved around the concept of the AI’s infiltration of the literary translation career category—the translator finds the model quite helpful in a majority of the process. The point of interest and contention lies in a single paragraph of text depicting a sexual/intimate act, or perhaps another moment that is distinct to homo sapiens. In the two parties’ dissection and dissent surrounding this small grouping of sentences, I hope to explore the components of humanity the art of translation asks for, while attempting to make sense of what criteria a given translation will/should be selected for as the world inevitably continues to protocol and technologize.

I’ve also tossed this around as a screen/audioplay or a comic, but given my initial conceit concerns literary translation, I like the idea of telling the story in the same medium.

Please let me know if this is all too vague or word salad-y, more than happy to specify/clarify as I can!


this part stood out to me

interested in how translations will annoy/fail people in the spirit of “cars, but also traffic jams”

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Right–fidelity to author’s intent, word-by-word linguistic accuracy, ~average joe~ comprehension level, social & political viewpoint, general global accessibility?

yea if you can nail the example (dramatically, satirically etc.) and tell us the gist it’ll probably be more attractive as an application

Hi @MK22 , fascinating! What I’m drawn most to is this point of interest & contention. I’m curious to see how you might decouple the intimate act from the language being used to describe it.

Even as you mention the “small grouping of sentences” it seems that an underlying assumption here is that the translator and AI are going back-and-forth over their preferred word pairings. If that’s the case, the discussion veers into which respective translation adequately captures what is being communicated. Going a step further, we end up in territory concerning who is the source of truth - the translator or the AI?

Taking a step back, I’m wondering if you’re exploring to what extent specific parts of the human experience can be captured by language, if at all. Is that the crux of your argument / investigation? Or are you more asking who ought to have the final say or authority on how such moments for homo sapiens are captured?

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oh cool i wrote a dissertation on literary translation [economics] once. if this gets granted and you want to be connected to literary translators i know quite a few (went to the US’s biggest literary translator conference once before Covid). i also know a foreign rights agency or two.

i would also encourage reading and deploying this essay in rewrites of your app if it helps frame the problem of how translators can reframe their profession (or office?) as a protocol now that centaurs are eating all the economics out from under publishing in general and the translation rights market in particular.

Appreciate the synthesis and insights!

There’s something I’m drawn to about a reader witnessing the processes, care and thoroughness of two uber-talented translators of vastly different trainings and types of sentience; how much a passage, a line, a word, can/should be pored over and (if needed) fought for, their dynamic swinging between an admirational dance and a battle of wits.

Whatever the exact point of disagreement is or differing interpretations are (which will determine a great deal), my initial sense is not to infer one is ‘truer’ than the other, or take a stand on the ‘human side’ and the ‘AI side.’ I’d seek for the story to make a case for the both the essentially and the immense difficulty of the act (and perhaps developing protocol) of literary translation, with the complexity of AI and the shifting sands of publishing acting as reflectors and illuminators of this fact.

Thank you for sharing, this is beyond kind and surely helpful, as this is a realm I personally don’t have a ton of personal experience in. I worked outside the US last year (speaking mostly Spanish) which certainly informed my thoughts, but the economics of publishing and translation is a separate can of worms, and embodying it truthfully in the story will prove invaluable.

Your framing of translators needing to reframe themselves from a profession to a protocol also opened up some new brain avenues, and with the linked essay there’s plenty more for me to chew on. Cheers!