How good is an AI at translation?

Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde: The Old Exchange of Amsterdam, 1670

Recently, artificial intelligence has generated dismay because it can produce pretty works of art, passable high school essays, poems that rhyme, and subpar short stories that bedevil but do not fool editors. AI started moving into translation twenty years ago, when it caused a similar disturbance in the force.

I’m a professional translator. Machine translation and computer assisted translation has improved over the years and joined the many technological tools available to translators. OmegaT is a free translation memory application that can give you a feel for how sophisticated these tools can be.

Yet despite (or because of) all this technology, “Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 20 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Machines now do the grunt work, freeing up more opportunities for creative work, such as transcreation.

I specialize in translations from challenging sources. I won an award in 2016 for my translation of Confusion of Confusions, written by Joseph de la Vega in 1688, a delightful Baroque book that examined Amsterdam’s stock exchange, the first in the world. I made the translation for Spain’s National Securities Market Commission to use for an institutional gift.

So, how good is machine translation? Here are a few selections from the book comparing my translation with a translation by DeepL, currently one of the best on the market — and it’s good. You’ll see overall competent rendering with few howling errors. What it doesn’t do, in my opinion, is capture the music of the original, because Baroque prose is polished and playful. That’s why you should hire a human who likes challenges.

I will not look at machine translations before I start my work. I believe that their commonplace renderings would misdirect my task of rendering exceptional prose from one language into exceptional prose in another language: there is no intermediate side-trip of mediocrity on that journey.

The DeepL translation will be followed by mine, then the original Spanish.

DeepL

There were three reasons for my ingenuity to weave these Dialogues, which I hope deserve the title of curious. The first, to entertain leisure with some delight that does not detract from the modest. The second, to describe (for those who do not practice it) a business which is the most real and useful known in Europe today. And the third, to show with truthfulness the tricks of the tricksters who dirty it, so that it may serve as a delight to some, a warning to others, and a lesson to many.

My translation

I came to devise these dialogues, which I hope worthy of curiosity, with three considerations in mind. First, to fill my spare time with a little delightful entertainment that would not be immodest. Second, to describe (for those not involved in it) a business that is the most authentic and useful known today in Europe. And third, to show truthfully the wiles used by the speculators who sully it, which for some will serve as a delight, others as a warning, and many as a lesson.

Original Spanish

Tres motivos tuvo mi ingenio para tejer estos Diálogos que espero merezcan el título de curiosos. El primero, entretener el ocio con algún deleite que no menoscabe lo modesto. El segundo, describir (para los que no lo practican) un negocio que es el más real y útil que se conoce hoy en Europa. Y el tercero, mostrar con veracidad las astucias de que se valen los tahúres que lo ensucian, para que a unos sirva de delicia, a otros de aviso, y a muchos de escarmiento.

DeepL

The stock business is so widespread in this town that anyone who speaks of another subject is considered impertinent, and there are those who, without even knowing what they are talking about, think about it even in their dreams.

An enigmatic business, which is at once the most real and the most false in Europe, the noblest and the most infamous that the world knows, the finest and the coarsest that is practiced in the world. A collection of sciences and a compendium of entanglements, a touchstone for the shrewd and a mound stone for the daring, a treasure trove of profits and a cause of disasters.

My translation

The business of stocks is so widespread here that it would feel impertinent to speak of anything else, and there are those who only dream that they know what they speak of and even while dreaming do not cease to ponder it.

It is an enigmatic business, both the most splendid and most treacherous in Europe, the most noble and most loathsome known to the world, the most subtle and most vulgar practiced on the globe. It is the convocation of knowledge and compendium of turmoil, touchstone for the wise and tombstone for the rash, source of profit and origin of disaster.

Original Spanish

El negocio de las acciones está tan difundido en esta plaza que sienta plaza de impertinente el que habla de otro tema, y hay quienes sin saber ni por sueños de lo que hablan, hasta en sueños piensan en él.

Un negocio enigmático, que es a la vez el más real y el más falso de Europa, el más noble y el más infame que conoce el mundo, el más fino y el más grosero que se practica en el orbe. Conjunto de ciencias y compendio de enredos, piedra de toque de los sagaces y piedra de túmulo de los atrevidos, tesoro de ganancias y causa de desastres.

DeepL

People of different customs, different nations and different jobs embark for this new world. Philosophers enter to find in these circuses how little the animal motorcycle differs from the violent motorcycle. Geometers venture, because they find in these circles some lines of what they call irrational. The astrologers get excited, presuming to see, among so many stars, theirs. The curious approach to learn something from those who know so many letters. The poet refines his fables, the jurisconsult his subtleties, the reflective ones their entanglements. The devout seek looks, the penitent repentance, and the pilots the heights that magnify, the winds that blow and the needles that sting. The barber enters happy because he has to shave everyone. Enter the surgeon to heal the sores, to use the patches in these battles and to get used to not heal the wounds at the first time. Enter the shoemaker, presuming to fit everyone into a shoe. Enter the tailor to cut the dresses. Enter the sculptor to get used to carving men of stone, for some do not feel the outrages nor rage seeking revenge. Enter the gambler to watch his luck, the lover to improve his appearance, the soldier to perfect his skills. The blacksmith to bring irons, the musician dissonances and fugues, the arithmetician to make accounts, the painter perspectives, far and shadows, the swordsman shortcuts for his reverses. Finally, neither the courtier is exempted from this business to get used to patience, nor the rustic to get used to contempt, nor the Frenchman to fury, nor the Englishman to pride, nor the Turk to noise, nor the Italian to disguise, nor the Fleming to phlegm, nor the German to arrogance, nor the Pole to flee, nor the Spaniard to curse.

My translation

People of diverse customs, different nations, and a variety of trades embark for this new world. Philosophers arrive to discover the little in this circus that differentiates the moto animal from the moto violento. Geomancers dare involvement because as they measure its circumference, they find some lines they call irrational. Astrologers become enthusiastic, boasting that they have spotted their own star amid all the others. The curious draw near to learn something from those who are so wise. Poets refine their fantasies, lawyers their subtleties, sophists their complications. The devout seek approval, penitents remorse, and ship pilots latitudes of glory, high winds, and sharp compass needles. The barber works happily because he can shave something off everyone. The doctor comes to treat wounds and apply bandages during battles and soon learns not to treat injuries right away. The shoemaker believes he can fit the same shoe to everyone. The tailor succeeds in clipping attire. The sculptor accustoms himself to carving men from stone so that some of them will not sense outrage and seek furious revenge. The speculator arrives to scrutinize his luck, the lover to improve his appearance, the soldier to perfect his wiles. The blacksmith brings iron, the musician plays dissonant fugues, the mathematician figures accounts, the painter takes perspectives and sketches shadows, and the fencer feints and lunges. Finally, no courtesan studies this business to acquire patience; no rustic to become inured to disdain, nor the French to fury, the English to pride, the Turkish to noise, the Italian to disguise, the Flemish to phlegm, the German to arrogance, the Polish to flight, or the Spanish to profanity.

Original Spanish

Se embarcan para este nuevo mundo gentes de diversas costumbres, de diferentes naciones y de varios empleos. Entran los filósofos para encontrar en estos circos lo poco que difiere el moto animal del moto violento. Se aventuran los geómetras, porque encuentran en estas circunferencias algunas líneas de las que ellos llaman irracionales. Se entusiasman los astrólogos, presumiendo divisar, entre tantas estrellas, la suya. Los curiosos se arriman para aprender algo de los que saben tanta letra. Refina el poeta sus fábulas, el jurisconsulto sus sutilezas, los reflexivos sus enredos. Los devotos buscan miradas, los penitentes arrepentimientos, y los pilotos las alturas que engrandecen, los vientos que soplan y las agujas que pican. Entra el barbero contento porque ha de afeitar a todos. Entra el cirujano para sanar las llagas, para valerse de los parches en estas batallas y para acostumbrarse a no sanar las heridas a la primera. Entra el zapatero, presumiendo que meterá a todos en un zapato. Entra el sastre para cortar los vestidos. Entra el escultor para acostumbrarse a tallar hombres de piedra, porque algunos no sienten los ultrajes ni se enfurecen buscando venganza. Entra el tahúr a relojear su suerte, el amante a mejorar su aspecto, el soldado a perfeccionar sus mañas. El herrero a traer hierros, el músico disonancias y fugas, el aritmético a hacer cuentas, el pintor perspectivas, lejos y sombras, el espadachín atajos para sus reveses. Por último, no se eximen de este negocio ni el cortesano para habituarse a la paciencia, ni el rústico para acostumbrarse al desprecio, ni el francés a la furia, ni el inglés a la soberbia, ni el turco al ruido, ni el italiano al disfraz, ni el flamenco a la flema, ni el alemán a la arrogancia, ni el polaco a huir, ni el español a maldecir.

DeepL

And in spite of all these dalliances, disconcerts, ravings, doubts and uncertainties of the profits, there is no lack of means to know simply in which direction the majority inclines its suppositions, as much in the political as in the fundamental. And whoever devotes himself to follow them seriously, without passion that blinds him or whim that alters him, will not fail to be right many times, if not all. And, when he does the math, he will recognize that there is no more cunning than going after the game, and no more wisdom than going with the flow.

My translation

And despite the delusion, distraction, delirium, doubt, and dilemma that accompany profits, there are ways to easily discover where most opinions lean, both in policies and in fundamentals. Whoever dedicates himself to follow these opinions seriously, without blinding passions or changeable whims, will not fail to succeed often, if not always. And when all things are considered, he will realize there is nothing more astute than to pursue speculation nor anything wiser than to drift with the current.

Original Spanish

Y a pesar de todos estos devaneos, desconciertos, desvaríos, dudas e incertidumbres de las ganancias, no faltan medios para saber sencillamente hacia dónde inclina la mayoría sus suposiciones, tanto en lo político como en lo fundamental. Y quien se dedique a seguirlas seriamente, sin pasión que lo ciegue ni capricho que lo altere, no dejará de acertar muchas veces, si no todas. Y, cuando haga la cuenta, reconocerá que no hay más astucia que ir tras el juego, ni más sabiduría que seguir la corriente.

3 thoughts on “How good is an AI at translation?

  1. When writing, I use neither spell- nor grammar-checkers; that is what a brain is for; people who don’t use their brains? Use it or lose it. And without mentioning any names, AI cannot even correctly grammar-check a short document and often attempts to censure what the writer wants to say in both documents and emails (Why am I told that my email is being sent after 5:30 pm local time? My recipient is in Spain, where it is after midnight and yes, my recipieint is still awake.

    However, AI is here to stay, that is certain. And sometimes Natural Intelligence fails as well. I interprete for medical providers assisting refugees. Nurses and PA usually just said to me, Thanks for helping. But once a physician said, “Tell me exactly what the person says, don’t change it.” So, I repeated what the patient said exact in English:

    Physician: “But what does that mean?” Interpreter: “You told me to repeat what she said, not what it means after translation into Englis.”

    Examples:

    “Pulling a leg” = “taking someone by the hair” in Spanish, and “Two birds with one stone” is “two birds with one shot” (evidently Spanish speakers have guns!)

    The English translation made no sense because Interpretation is telling one person what the second persons means, not what they said.

    Another hard word in Spanish” is “malestar” (literally, “to be temporarily in an unwell state”). All Spanish-speakers know what this means.

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