Counterpoint Counterpoint

Counterpoint Counterpoint
special feature:

      Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020
      CEATL’s European Literary
      Translators’ E-zine
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Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

            From the editors 		                      3

            My three languages:                      5
            The political backdrop of a
            Polish translator’s career
            Hanna Jankowska

            Mad about graphs:                        10
            CEATL examines Europe’s literary
            translators’ working conditions
            Claudia Steinitz & Miquel Cabal-Guarro

            special feature:
            machine translation & literature

            Literary Machine Translation:            14
            Are the computers coming for
            our jobs, asks James Hadley

            Duel with DeepL:                         19
            Literary translator Hans-Christian
            Oeser on machine translation
            and the translator’s voice

            CAT tools – the literary                 24
            translator’s new assistant?
            Katja Zakrajšek shares her
            experiences of working with MT

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            Less room for engagement:               26
            Researcher Waltraud Kolb on
            literature and machine translation

            The future relationship of              28
            literary translation and AI
            Reflections from CEATL
            president Morten Visby

            out and about                           32
            From Romania to Belgium:
            Seven questions to
            Doina Ioanid and Jan H. Mysjkin

            notes from around europe: sweden        35
            A long and sometimes bumpy road
            Swedish literary translators
            from 1893 to the present day
            Lena Jonsson

            me and my dictionary                    38
           Variants – a lucky break for languages
            Jacqueline Csuss

            CEATL’s Click List:                     41
            Links to the world of translation

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From the

While preparing this new issue of             for quite a while experienced the radical
Counterpoint, a fascinating book came         changes machine translation entails.
to mind: the facsimile of a 12th-century      When it comes to the translation of
manuscript, written in the region that        literary texts, the question of how
used to be called Upper Mesopotamia.          useful machines could be has for a
In this text the author, İsmail al-Jazari,    long time been met with cynicism.
who some believe was a source of              But recent developments show that
inspiration for Da Vinci, describes and       machine translation could very well
draws a large number of mechanical            become part of a literary translator’s
devices he invented for daily use – a         life in the not too distant future.
hand-washing automaton with flush
mechanism for ritual ablutions, a boat        What would that be like, what would
with machines that look like musicians        it entail? Would it be ‘game over’
playing the saz, a servant filling your cup   for literary translators? Will they
whenever your drink is about to run out.      be turned into high-end editors,
                                              correcting machine-produced errors?
Machines doing work for human beings          Will translators still be able to engage
have stimulated human imagination             with the author’s voice in a text in the
for a very long time. And just as much        same way as before, when there’s also
as machines have been the subject             the machine’s voice to be dealt with?
of desire, they have also invariably          What about the copyright of translators
been approached with caution. What            when a machine does part of the job?
if their effects turn out differently
to what had been envisaged?                   Five contributors raise these and
                                              other intriguing questions in the
As literary translators, we might be          special feature of our fourth issue:
confronted with a game-changing               machine translation and literature.
machine sooner than we thought.
Colleagues who (also) work as                 James Hadley, researcher at Trinity
commercial translators have already           College, Dublin, describes the

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developments in machine translation
that have taken place since the 1940s,
and he clarifies the different principles
that guide programmes such as Trados
and Memo-Q on the one hand, and
programmes working with neural
systems like Google Translate and DeepL
on the other. Two translators, Hans-
Christian Oeser and Katja Zakrajšek,
who have actually used different types      Hanneke van der Heijden is a literary translator
of machine translation to translate         and interpreter from Turkish into Dutch,
literary texts, share their experiences.    and writes about literature from Turkey.
Researcher Waltraud Kolb is conducting
an experimental study on decision-          Photo: Private Archive
making in literary translation, and here
in Counterpoint, she discusses her first
results on differences in the cognitive
processes involved in translating
literature and in post-editing a machine-
produced translation. And finally, Morten
Visby, president of CEATL, reflects on
the attitude among literary publishers
towards machine translation and,
among other things, the effects it might
have in the domain of authors’ rights.      Anne Larchet is a freelance interpreter
                                            and translator from Spanish to English.
But there is more. In addition to
our special feature you’ll find other       Photo: Martin de Haan
stimulating contributions concerning
developments within CEATL, and the
world of translators at large – from
the benefits of a dictionary of variants
in German, to the political backdrop
of the career of a Polish translator.

We hope you enjoy reading
Counterpoint’s latest issue and, as
always, welcome your comments and
suggestions at

                                            Juliane Wammen is an award-winning
Hanneke van der Heijden,                    literary translator from English,
Anne Larchet and Juliane Wammen             Norwegian and Swedish into Danish.

                                            Photo: Tim Flohr Sørensen

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My three
The political backdrop of a
Polish translator’s career
                                              Hanna Jankowska
I sometimes wonder if I still have the        the Soviet Union”, supported the Arab
right to call myself a translator of          countries. The declared and obligatory
Arabic? Yes, I graduated from Arabic          political support, however, did not go
studies at Warsaw University, and for         hand in hand with the dissemination
nearly 20 years I worked as a translator      of information about these countries.
and interpreter of this language (not         I wanted to know what the Middle East
every Oriental studies graduate was so        turmoil was really about, to read the
lucky).I mention three languages on my        press and literature from the rather
CV: Arabic, English, Russian, but for the     unknown Arab side, to understand
last 25 years I have rarely translated        it and to present its arguments. And
from Arabic. Since 2000, I have only          to do so, knowledge of the language
translated two books, one of which is         was essential. So, I started to learn on
waiting to appear in print (My Name           my own with the Teach Yourself Arabic
Is Adam by Elias Khoury) and several          tutorial, a mimeographed textbook
poems by an Iraqi poet, Hatif Janabi,         for language courses and the Arabic-
who happens to be my colleague. More          Russian dictionary by Baranov. By the
often I do fact checking of books about       time I started my formal studies I could
the Middle East for various editors.          read a simple press article. The Arab
                                              press available at the time in Poland was
I probably would have stayed with             the weekly Al-Akhbar, an organ of the
my profession as a translator of              Communist Party of Lebanon, which had
Arabic if it had not been for the             quite a good cultural section. This is how
changes in our part of the world.             I became acquainted with the poetry of
                                              the Palestinian resistance movement,
It was not the fascination with the exotic    which fascinated me, and these were
that brought me to Arabic studies, not        thus my first exercises in translation.
Arabian Nights, not an interest in Islam,
but political events. In the six-day war of   While still a student, I managed to have
1967, Poland, as well as other countries      some translations of poetry published
from the socialist camp “headed by            in literary magazines, but my real

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“By translating                             As it turned out later, my first three
                                            translated Arabic books were among the

 Arabic literature,
                                            first 15 of the best hundred Arab novels
                                            selected by the Arab Writers Union. The
                                            third was Zayni Barakat by Gamal Ghitani
 I hoped I would                            published in 1990. Shortly afterwards,
                                            I also completed the translation of this

 break entrenched                           author’s second book, The Zafarani Files,
                                            but PIW abandoned its publication for

 stereotypes of
                                            financial reasons. State funding was over.

                                            English taking over
 the Arab world”                            At the beginning of the 1990s, not only
                                            political but also cultural priorities
                                            changed. Private publishing houses
                                            which mushroomed at that time tried
debut did not come until 1984: Beirut       to make up for lost time in presenting
Nightmares by Ghada Samman. The             world literature to Polish readers. And
book was very important to me, because      “world” at that time meant mainly
a few years earlier I had worked as an      Anglo-American. The book market was
interpreter for a group of wounded          flooded with crime novels, thrillers,
victims of the Lebanese Civil War who
had come to Poland for treatment.
Listening to their stories, I felt sorrow
and helplessness. When I found out
that such a book had come out, I did
my best to get it. I proposed it to the
Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy (PIW)
publishing house which had greatly
contributed to the promotion of world
literature in Poland (it had published
the full edition of Arabian Nights and
the first modern translation of Quran).

The next book was offered to me by
the same publishing house, and it too
was a book of my dreams: The Secret
Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile
Habibi. A professor of Arabic studies,
who had reviewed it for the publisher,
declared it to be untranslatable due
to its language full of puns, the local
realities unknown to the Polish reader,
and so on. But I dared to do it, and
the book was received very well by          Copy of the old Baranov dictionary
reviewers in literary periodicals.          Photo: Hanna Jankowska

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tear-jerkers, pop-psychological
guides – all those kinds of books that   “Reading crime
                                          stories […] I
had been unwelcome in communist
Poland. As one translator of Swedish,
who unsuccessfully tried to persuade
publishers to publish translations
of Swedish literature, put it, “Polish
                                          discovered a lively
publishers firmly believe that God speaks
English”. Even today, translations        modern language
                                          that we were not
from English account for around 60%
of all translations of foreign literature
published in Poland, and according
to various estimates translated books
account for 26-40% of the book market.
                                          taught at school”
In that strange chaotic period at the        had some connection with my
beginning of the transition there was        specialisation – a friend of the editor
such a demand for translators from           who was looking for a translator for
English that many people with various        Not Without My Daughter by Betty
language skills tried their hand at          Mahmoody remembered that she knew
the profession. Some have proven             someone who had graduated in Oriental
themselves as literary translators, others   studies. (Iran – Iraq – apparently that
have not. I tried it, and I succeeded.       didn’t make much of a difference?).
My first translations from English           Together with my late friend Grażyna
                                             Gasparska we translated the book under
                                             a pseudonym. The second one, about
                                             oppressed Saudi princesses, which was
                                             also a co-translation with Gasparska,
                                             I do not even want to mention. I
                                             am not proud of those translations,
                                             being aware that I have contributed
                                             to the consolidation of the orientalist
                                             stereotypes that I so wanted to fight
                                             against. Fortunately, no publisher asked
                                             me again to translate books of this kind
                                             (and if they did, I would refuse). Having
                                             no background in formal English studies,
                                             especially in English literature, I did not
                                             dare to translate English fiction. In my
                                             work with Arabic I focused on language,
                                             style, cultural background, etc. In
                                             working with English, which I consider a
                                             kind of contemporary Latin, the subject
                                             matter is important. I was (and still
First page of Teach yourself Arabic          am) lucky to translate books on themes
Photo: Hanna Jankowska                       that interested me. I found fulfilment

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in translating non-fiction literature,
essays, biographies, travelogues. After
several years of dealing only with Middle
Eastern issues it seemed to me that
new worlds were opening up to me.
I cannot but be proud of acquainting
Polish readers with the books of such
distinguished authors as Benjamin
Barber, Richard Sennett, Naomi Klein,
Alberto Manguel, Michael Walzer, Tony
Judt and others (perhaps it was a kind
of compensation for my unfinished
PhD thesis in political science).

A sense of mission
Until the mid-1990s it seemed that
Arabic literature would disappear
irretrievably from the Polish market.
But this did not happen. Poland turned
out to be the only East and Central
European country where more books
translated from Arabic were published
after the transition than before it. For
example, in the early 2000s the Smak         The Polish translation of H is for Hawk
Słowa publishing house published             Photo: Hanna Jankowska
several translations of modern Arab
prose. Nevertheless, translations from       bluntly: if someone wants to do this
Arabic represent only about 0.09%            work, they must have another source
of all translated books in Poland.           of income, because they can’t earn a
                                             living from translation. English has
I remember that in my youthful naivety       enabled me to become a freelancer
I had a sense of mission: I hoped that       and a full-time literary translator. It
by translating Arabic literature I would     gave me the freedom so that I, in the
break entrenched stereotypes of the Arab     mid-1990s, was able to leave my job
world. Now I am aware that in the reality    at an Arab embassy in Warsaw where,
of the present book market original          due to the dwindling political and
ambitious literature can hardly compete      cultural relations, my work had become
with sex-and-violence thrash books           rather pointless and unsatisfactory.
on oppressed Muslim women and bad
terrorists. But its presence is important,   Missing the Russian melody
and it is available for these who care.      As for Russian, that’s another story. I
                                             have always had a sentiment for this
The majority of the few Polish literary      language, for its melody, for Russian
translators from Arabic have been            poetry, classic novels and songs. At
and are academic scholars. To put it         the beginning of the 1990s, access to

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                                             Hanna Jankowska is a literary and
                                             audiovisual translator of Arabic, English
                                             and Russian into Polish and has translated
                                             about 90 books, mainly non-fiction, and
                                             dozens of documentary films. In 1997
                                             she received the award of the Polish
                                             Translators’ Association for the translation
                                             of The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P.
                                             Huntington. Jankowska has a MA in Arabic
                                             studies from the University of Warsaw
                                             and is an active member of the Polish
                                             Literary Translators’ Association (STL).

Hanna Jankowska. The text on her T-shirt is
one of the slogans of STL: “Love translators!”
Photo: Iwonna Natkańska

Russian culture was practically cut off,     Publishers remember me when they look
which was quite a natural reaction to        for translators of books by Arab authors
forced love for the Soviet Union. I missed   who write in English (Anthony Shadid,
it – not the USSR but the culture, of        Hisham Matar). My old fascinations
course. I borrowed Russian books from        have faded, but still there is one book
a rental shop in one of the booths of        I would love to translate. It is Fadwa
Jarmark Europa, the giant bazaar in          Tuqan’s autobiography A Mountainous
Warsaw Stadium. Reading crime stories        Journey that enchanted me many years
by Marinina and Dontsova, I discovered       ago. Maybe someday I will have a chance
a lively modern language that we were        to present it to Polish readers …
not taught at school. After several years
Russian films returned to some new
TV channels and my refreshed Russian
turned out to be of use when I was
asked to translate feature films and TV
series. Have I completely moved away
from Arabic literature? It’s hard to tell.
I do not follow its recent developments
as carefully as my colleagues in the
Academia do but I keep up with its
publications in the Polish book market.
From time to time I translate poetry.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

Mad about graphs
CEATL examines Europe’s literary
translators’ working conditions

                                               Claudia Steinitz &
                                               Miquel Cabal-Guarro
“I’m mad about graphs and statistics”          time, one survey was formulated for
 Miquel states, to which Claudia adds “I       all translators in Europe – association
 put my whole life into Excel files”. And      members or not, full-time or part-time
 a good thing too, because these are           translators, experienced colleagues
 well-needed qualifications for entering       and newcomers – in 25 languages. In
 the CEATL working group on working            order to get the broadest response
 conditions. Of the six working groups         possible, CEATL representatives
 CEATL currently has, it was the first         in all member associations had to
 to be created, in 2005, with the aim          convince their members and other
 of collecting facts on the general and        translators in their countries using
 financial situation of literary translators   good arguments. It’s always difficult
 all over Europe. In 2008 it published         to get people to talk about money…
 a first ground-breaking report on
 the catastrophic income situation of          Working conditions after Covid-19
 literary translators in 23 European           Out of 3700 responses, there were
 countries and regions. In 2012, the group     almost 2000 complete answers.
 carried out a survey on the visibility of     Currently, the Working Conditions
 literary translators as authors of their      WG is sorting, coding and translating
 translations. It included questions           collected data in order to begin to
 about naming the translators in the           evaluate the results. The answers on
 translated books as well as in reviews        general questions, e.g. about age and
 on radio and TV or in newspapers.             experience, show that all categories
                                               mentioned above are represented in
The most recent survey on income in            the dataset. Here are some graphs
all CEATL member countries took place          summarising the general questions:
in May and June 2020. For the first

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Figure 1: Years of working experience   Figure 2: Full or part-time work as
                                        literary translator

Figure 3: Age of respondents            Figure 4: Number of translations published

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 As it was (and still is) quite a special year,   The responses about translation fees,
 last-minute questions about the initial          royalties, subsidies and prices, which
 consequences of the COVID-19 crisis in           form the greater part of the data,
 Europe were included. Questions asked            will be evaluated and summarised
 were: if the crisis affected translators in      by the end of 2020, when it is hoped
 their work, if they had a lower workload,        the final report will be published.
 if deadlines of existing contracts were re-
 negotiated, and also if they were able to        How the data will help translators
 concentrate and work under the stressful         The results of the surveys on working
 circumstances as well as they did before.        conditions are used for different
                                                  purposes: Firstly, CEATL needs this
                                                  data for lobbying the EU institutions for

“Last-minute                                      better working conditions, more grants
                                                  and subsidies for literary translators and
                                                  publishers, as well as for more authors’
 questions about                                  rights, public lending rights and cultural
                                                  recognition and visibility. Secondly, we
 the initial                                      want to make data available to national
                                                  funding organisations which promote

 consequences of                                  their national literature and therefore
                                                  fund translations into other languages by
                                                  translators in other countries. This data
 the COVID-19                                     could be very useful to the “European
                                                  network for translation” (ENLIT).
 crisis were                                      Finally, every member association of
                                                  CEATL can use the data for their own

 included”                                        policies and lobbying and for comparing
                                                  their situation with other countries.

                                                  Nowadays, speed becomes ever more
 The answers show that in May and                 important. That’s why we are thinking
 June about 30-40 per cent of the                 about new ways of collecting data
 respondents experienced delayed                  via shorter and quicker surveys and
 payments, postponed contracts or                 reporting the results on CEATL’s
 contracts put on hold, re-negotiated             website, our national translators’
 deadlines, and loss of expected income           associations’ websites as well as on
 from literature-related public events.           Facebook, Twitter and in this e-zine.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                             Miquel Cabal-Guarro is a literary
                             translator from Russian to Catalan. He has
                             a PhD in Linguistics and currently teaches
                             Translation, Linguistics and Russian
                             Literature at Barcelona University (UB),
                             Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and the
                             Open University of Catalonia (UOC). He is
                             a board member of the Catalan Writers‘
                             Association (AELC) and is their delegate in
                             CEATL. He is one of the two vicepresidents
                             of CEATL.

                             Miquel Cabal-Guarro
                             Photo: Elvira Jiménez

                             Claudia Steinitz has been translating
                             literature from French to German for
                             30 years. She was one of the founders of
                             Weltlesebühne e.V., an association which
                             brings translators onto the world stage
                             and promotes their public recognition. She
                             was awarded the Jane-Scatcherd-Prize for
                             translation in 2020. Claudia lives in Berlin
                             and is the CEATL delegate of the German
                             association VdÜ.

                             Claudia Steinitz
                             Photo: Guido Notermans

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special feature: machine translation and literature

Literary machine
Are the computers coming for our jobs?
                                             James Hadley
In the wake of the second world              of machine translation would be fully
war, experiments in machine                  solved within three to five years.
translation began. In 1947, American
mathematician Warren Weaver laid             Multiple exceptions to language rules
out in a memorandum his vision for           Rules-based systems, comprising
how digital computers might be used          bilingual dictionaries, along with
to translate human language. Earlier         logical rules for how to handle the
in the decade, a series of computers,        textual information were based on the
including the Bombes and Colossus had        traditional language teaching methods.
been used by the Allies at Bletchley Park    However, as anyone who has learnt a
to decode Nazi messages. By comparing        second language knows, language rules
translation to decoding, it was not a        tend to come with multiple exceptions,
great leap of imagination to conceive        meaning that these systems quickly
of machines being used to render             became unwieldy, slow, and plagued with
messages from one language to another.       errors. In 1966, the Automatic Language
                                             Processing Advisory Committee
During the 1950s and early 1960s,            concluded that despite significant
research devoted to creating machine         investment, machine translation
translation systems, primarily of the        systems were not likely to reach the
English-Russian language pair, was           same standards as human translators in
seen as a national security priority on      the near future, and that efforts should
both sides of the Iron Curtain. One of the   be moved towards developing tools to
most notable events of this decade was       assist translators, what later came to be
the 1954 Georgetown–IBM experiment,          known as CAT tools, such as Trados.
in which the automatic translation of
more than sixty Russian sentences into       Thus, for over a decade, machine
English was carried out by a rules-based     translation research in the US slowed
system. This experiment was seen as          to a crawl. However, it continued in
such a success at the time that it was       other countries, with the focus falling
confidently claimed that the problem         on a very small number of languages,

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

such as English and French, as in the         data, they can produce translations
case of the METEO system used in              that are indistinguishable from texts
Canada from 1977-2001 to translate            produced by human translators.
weather forecasts between the country’s
two official languages. Around the            So, is it game over for the human
same time, rules-based systems were           translators? Well, no.
being replaced by statistical machine
translation (SMT) systems, which did
not rely on manually coded rules, but         “Authorial
on large corpora of parallel sentences
which a computer uses to produce new
translations. These systems originally
                                               styles are not
worked word-by-word, and later came
to work phrase-by-phrase. Thus, they
work relatively well for high-resource,
relatively similar languages pairs,            transferable”
where the huge number of parallel
sentences required to build the corpora   While neural systems are extremely
are available. However, in the case of    effective at translating certain types of
languages with substantial differences    texts, especially those of a formulaic
in word order, or a limited availability of
                                          nature with short sentences, they are still
parallel data, they tend to fair less well.
                                          very restricted in terms of what they can
                                          do well. This is because of technicalities
Statistics versus neurons                 that underlie the systems. In order to
By 2014, these were being superseded      train a system, a large corpus of parallel
by systems using neural machine           sentences is required, and the system
translation (NMT). These also rely on     will perform better when it is trained
large corpora of parallel sentences in    on the kinds of sentence that it will be
the two languages under consideration.    asked to translate. For example, a system
However, neural systems are modelled      trained on parallel sentences all taken
on the way that neurons communicate       from car manuals will likely perform
in the human brain, where many            very well at translating car manuals, and
small processes are brought together      less well at translating cookery books.
to create the final product. So, they     Getting past this issue is not as simple
depart from statistical systems in that   as just training a system on every kind
statistical systems use their corpora as  of text, because the machine has no way
the ingredients for their translations,   of distinguishing which kinds of text it is
whereas neural systems use their corpora trained on and dealing with in any given
effectively to learn how to translate for instance. Therefore, training a system
themselves. These newer systems tend      on a wide range of text types will likely
to produce translations more quickly and mean that the outputs for any of them
to a much higher quality – to the extent  will not be as strong as if the system were
that if they are given enough training    trained specifically on any one of them.

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Millions of parallel sentences             Even though they are both kinds of
This problem is not particularly grave     poem, a sonnet is very different from
when it comes to most technical texts,     a limerick. Even though they both fall
because the writing conventions that       into the fantasy genre of novels, Harry
govern cookery books are not a million     Potter is very different from The Lord
miles away from the conventions            of the Rings. The problem for machine
governing car manuals. So, while a         translation systems is that for much
system trained on all sorts of technical   literature, authorial styles are not
texts may not, statistically speaking,     necessarily transferable, and there is no
perform as well as a system trained        precedent on which to build a system.
on only one, the difference is often       Whereas there may be many parallel
not so great as to cause serious issues.   examples of contracts, for example, in
The same cannot be said for literature,    the two languages with which a system
however. In literature, not only are       can be trained, how is it possible to say
the writing conventions substantially      what is the parallel of Dante in Swahili,
different from many technical texts,       or Tolstoy in Vietnamese? The nearest
these conventions differ substantially     thing we could come up with would
between authors, time periods,             be a human translation of Dante into
genres, and forms of literature.           Swahili, or Tolstoy into Vietnamese.
                                           But a training corpus needs millions of
                                           parallel sentences to work effectively,
                                           which might work out as hundreds
                                           of books - many more than any one
                                           author is likely to have produced during
                                           their career. And practically speaking,
                                           if human translations for all these
                                           texts already exist, what is the point
                                           of training a system to translate the
                                           same texts in the same way again?

                                           A corpus won’t help with text style
                                           It may be tempting to think that
                                           authorial style is not the end of the
                                           world. Surely, the “meaning” is what
                                           counts first? Well, that is not really the
                                           case when it comes to either literature
                                           or machine translation, where form
                                           and function are bound together. This
                                           was recently brought home to me in an
                                           experiment where we experimented with
                                           translating some poems from the Arabian
                                           Nights with a system which had been
‘The Long Room’ in the old library,        trained using the only parallel corpus
Trinity College Dublin                     available for Arabic-English, which is
Photo: Sarah Shaffe, Unsplash              comprised mainly of Quranic translations

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

and data from the UN. Although the             language A to language C, a mediating
vast majority of the words in the poems        or “bridging” translation in language B
appeared in the training data, the             might be used. While sentiments about
style of the texts was so different from       whether this practice should take place
what the system was trained on that            at all have historically overwhelmed the
in most cases, it simply drew a blank.         fact that it has and does take place very
                                               widely, this project is interested in how
A related point is that machine                the practice can be useful in helping
translation systems today work on              us spreading knowledge and literature
the sentence-level, meaning that they          to languages that have historically
translate one sentence in isolation,           been overlooked. One of the things
and then forget about it as soon as            the QuantiQual project is doing just
they move onto the next. Again, this is        now is to work out how the strengths
generally not a big issue when dealing         of machine translation, in drawing
with technical texts. But for literature,      on a very wide range of information
where ideas, metaphors, allusions              sources; categorising technicalities;
and images can be recalled sentences,          and identifying patterns, can be used to
paragraphs, or even chapters later,            support human translators. The team
the machines have a long way to go             is finding ways to help a translator who
before they will be able to approach the       is faced with something like the poems
skills of a human literary translator.         in the Arabian Nights, and needing to
                                               render them into another language.
Software as the literary
translator’s assistant
For these and many other reasons,
machine translation programmers are           “Any serious
                                               challenge to
generally extremely tentative about
what they expect from their systems and
by when. Thus, what we are currently
seeing is developers working on tools
specifically to help literary translators.
                                               human literary
While some literary translators already
make use of CAT tools, such as Memo-Q,         translators is still
                                               a long way off”
many have not found these as relevant
to them as to technical translators. But
machines do have the ability to help with
issues specifically relevant to literature.
                                               They are building a system which will
For example, the QuantiQual Project is         not create translated poetry itself, but
researching indirect literary translations     will give the human translator key details
produced by humans and machines.               about the source text at a glance, which
Indirect translations are translations         will allow them to work as efficiently
of translations. For example, if a             as possible. For example, the software
translation cannot be made directly from       can tell the translator which of the

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                                           James Hadley is Ussher Assistant Professor
                                           in Literary Translation at Trinity College
                                           Dublin, and the Director of the College’s
                                           award-winning MPhil in Literary
                                           Translation master’s degree. He is also the
                                           principle investigator on the QuantiQual
                                           Project, generously funded by the Irish
                                           Research Council’s COALESCE scheme.

                                           James Hadley
                                           Photo: Private Archive

rhyming patterns found in this type of     So, while “never say never” is probably a
poetry each text corresponds to, show      good maxim, it is worth bearing in mind
where the rhymes, alliterations, and       that pessimistic translators have been
assonances are, tell the translator what   foretelling the arrival of their mechanical
the word counts, and average sentence      replacements since 1954. In translation
lengths are, and give thesaurus-like       studies and machine translation alike
glossaries in the target language for      over the past seventy years, the more
each of the words found in the poems.      we have found out about translation,
This way, the human translator is still    the more we have seen that it is much
the one choosing the most appropriate      more complicated than we ever could
options and producing the translations,    have assumed. Any serious challenge
but the software is assisting them by      to human literary translators is still a
allowing them to focus their attention     long way off, but we are already starting
on producing text, rather than on          to see tools being developed that will
searching, and collecting supporting       assist literary translators in their work.
information from multiple sources.
Compared to this highly complex text
type, adapting a similar system to
work with texts such as novels to assist
translators in maintaining certain
elements of style, such as sentence
length, pronoun usage, or idiosyncratic
word usages is a relatively small step.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

special feature: machine translation and literature

Duel with DeepL
Literary translator Hans-Christian
Oeser on machine translation and
the translator’s voice

What experience have you                   When I did try out translation
had with MT tools?                         applications such as Babel Fish or Google
I have been working as professional        Translate, I found them quite useful in
literary translator from English to        day-to-day contexts but utterly lacking
German for the past forty years,           in quality and reliability when it came
slowly advancing from mechanical to        to literary texts. When approached by
electric to electronic typewriters and     two computer linguists who wished
from a non-IBM-compatible Amstrad          to carry out empirical research into
to a variety of PCs and laptops. In a      the benefits or otherwise of machine
sense, my work practice has mirrored       translation tools for literary translation,
the onward march of technological          I agreed rather apprehensively to
progress over the decades, albeit in a     participate in two experiments, the
rather halting and hesitant fashion,       first serving as a pilot study for a
owing to my innate conservatism. So        broader in-depth investigation.
computer-assisted translation tools
were far beyond my horizon ...             In autumn 2018, I was asked to revisit
With the advent of the internet, my        F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and
wide range of well-thumbed physical        Damned, a novel I had translated into
dictionaries has gradually been            German as early as 1998. In spring 2019,
superseded by electronic dictionaries,     I was handed an excerpt of about six
although I had been quite dextrous at      pages, which I was to have processed by
finding the right lemmata at a fingertip   a machine translation program and to
even in large volumes such as the          post-edit. The purpose of the exercise
Große Muret-Sanders (an arduously          was to compare the ensuing result with
acquired skill!). Obviously, online        my purely “human” translation of
dictionaries have the huge advantage       1998 in terms of style and vocabulary
of regularly being brought up to date,     and to examine “how the translator’s
whereas printed lexica are hopelessly      voice is affected in workflows
antiquated soon after publication.         involving machine translation”. It was

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

found that my “textual voice” was                          This work of 333 pages was deemed
somewhat diminished in my post-                            suitable for a full-length comparison
edited work compared to its stronger                       of original text, machine-generated
manifestation in my earlier machine-                       translation and post-edited version.
independent German version.
                                                           And thus it was that, in spring 2019,
In my comments on those findings, I                        I fed the DeepL Translator window
argued that the diminution detected by                     with small portions of the original
qualitative corpus analysis might also,                    (the limit for any one feed is c. 5000
if not more, have to do with a general                     characters) – a process that took,
impoverishment of my vocabulary                            believe it or not, less than seven hours,
which seems to have occurred over                          meaning that an English-language
time in spite of the amassed wealth                        novel of considerable length could be
of experience as a literary translator.                    presented to the prospective German
In other words, there was not only                         reader in less than one working
the opposition “man v. machine” to                         day. But would it be a faithful and
consider, but also that of “then v. now”.1                 creative rendering of Christopher
                                                           Isherwood in German? Would there be
Which tools did you use?                                   a recognisable translator’s voice at all?
My suggestion to the researchers
was to use DeepL Translator, the free                      In addition to those aesthetic questions,
commercial machine translation service                     I fear certain repercussions not so much
launched in 2017, which I judged to be                     for not using the tool but, indeed, for
more accurate than Google Translate                        using it. To my non-expert mind, there
or Bing Microsoft Translator, if by no                     might very well be legal and contractual
means adequate for literary purposes.                      implications. Whose work is the
As the translation in question as well                     finished product? The machine’s (or its
as the more comprehensive follow-up                        producers’ and providers’), the human
was or is to be a once-off experiment                      translator’s or both? Who can, in the end,
and I do not necessarily wish to proceed                   claim copyright? Could DeepL Translator
wholesale with machine translation,                        rightfully maintain that, in spite of my
I did not purchase DeepL Pro.                              post-editing efforts (which would place
                                                           me in a position similar to that of a
I was then asked to engage in a quasi-                     publisher’s editor and copy editor), I had
supervised translation research project                    appropriated “their” translation? Could
on a much larger scale, the funding                        the publishers contend that not I myself
of which has not yet been approved.                        but rather a translation program was the
A German publishing company based                          originator of the German version and
in Hamburg had commissioned me                             that therefore I should receive less pay?
to translate Christopher Isherwood’s
novel The World in the Evening
(published in autumn 2019).

  The findings were published in Dorothy Kenny & Marion Winters, “Machine Translation,
Ethics and the Literary Translator’s Voice”, in: Translation Spaces, vol. 9, issue 1 (August
2020), pp. 123-149. See also the Click List in this issue of Counterpoint.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                                            have been accomplished – a welcome
                                            boost to your self-esteem. Also, in terms
                                            of the time spent on post-editing, as
                                            opposed to translating from scratch, it
                                            could be argued that the overall effort
                                            is somewhat less time-consuming.
                                            On the downside, the translation, as
                                            proffered by the machine, bears no
                                            resemblance whatever to a readable –
                                            and enjoyable – human translation,
                                            deficient as the latter may be. The
                                            machine has, as of yet, no proper sense
Al-Jazari piston rod and water wheel        of context, of wordplay, ambiguity,
Photo: Werner Forman Archive                polysemy and metaphor or of rhetorical
                                            devices such as alliteration and
Were you trained in how to use              assonance. It frequently mistranslates,
this tool?                                  using inappropriate words and phrases,
No training was needed. It was a            seemingly chosen at random from
cakewalk.                                   its vast lexicon. Two examples (from
                                            another attempt at machine translation)
And your overall views?                     may suffice: “Ungeöffnete Buchstaben
I must confess that whenever                liegen auf einem Stapel” for “Unopened
colleagues working in the domains of        letters are in a pile”, where ‘letters’ is
commercial, technical, legal or medical     translated in the meaning of ‘sound
translation mentioned computer-             symbol’, not of ‘writing’. Or: “Das
aided translation tools such as Trados      Bild wird gehalten, wenn Anita bei einer
(and that happened in the eighties!),       Landung innehält” for “The image is
I had to plead ignorance or expressed       held when Anita pauses on a landing”,
doubts and suspicions, being unable to      where ‘landing’ is translated as the
abstract from my own field of literary      touchdown of an aeroplane rather
translation with its particular and         than as part of a staircase. These errors
peculiar challenges of individual style,    are easy-peasy and can be rectified
including rhythm, sound, musicality etc.    without difficulty. But on a syntactical
                                            level, sentence structures often remain
As for DeepL Translator, I would            very “English” if they are not outright
summarise my admittedly limited             ungrammatical. Occasionally, it can be
experience as follows. There are            disheartening to have to disentangle
advantages and disadvantages in             the machine’s gobbledygook.
employing machine translation for
works of literature. Psychologically        Worse still, the machine has no
speaking, it is comforting to have an       awareness of elegance, of beauty, of
entire novel at the ready within a few      stylistic coherence (or indeed intended
hours. It feels (and, of course, that       breach of style) and is unable to create an
feeling is a huge fallacy!) as though the   unmistakable “sound”, combining the
work to be carried out might already        original author’s personal voice with that

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

of the translator. Its output is altogether   word selection and sentence formation.
uninspired and uninspiring. “Post-            Whereas, if confronted with the original
editing”, in fact, entails painstaking        alone, you are compelled to find
retranslation. Hence, in the case of          innovative solutions of your own to each
Christopher Isherwood’s novel there           and every challenge. Your professional
was hardly a sentence that did not have       experience, your educational habitus,
to be thoroughly revised and rebuilt.         your instinctive feeling for language,
                                              your aesthetic intuition, the spontaneous
There is another trap. When you revise        inspiration of the moment will
a pre-existing translation, and the           suggest words, phrases and sentence
machine translation is a pre-existing         constructions utterly different from
translation and not a rough draft of          those suggested and indeed pre-empted
your own making, you are faced with           by the machine. Your translational
a dilemma not encountered when                activity might be aided on one level but
embarking on a fresh translation that is      on another it is hampered and impeded.
not machine-produced. It is a dilemma
known to every editor proper: how to          Was your translation fee any different
respect both the original author’s and        than if you hadn’t used an MT tool?
the translator’s voice? You do not have       As no one was aware of my doings, I was
to “respect” the machine’s “efforts”          paid my usual fee. However, there are
but you have to set to work against           justified fears among literary translators
two backdrops at once: the original           that in future publishing houses
and the pre-existing translation,             might commission book translations
each posing its own difficulties.             stipulating the use of machine
                                              translation tools in order to reduce fees
                                              and to downgrade the literary translator,
“Post-editing”,                               who only recently has been able to
                                              secure some degree of social standing,

 in fact, entails                             to the role of out-of-house editor.

                                              How do you see the future of
                                              literary translation in relation
                                              to both CAT and MT tools?
 retranslation”                               Technological progress, including the
                                              development of artificial intelligence
                                              and its offshoots, seems unstoppable,
Psychologically and mentally, more            irrespective of ethical and practical
often than not your creative energy is        considerations. There is no doubt that
channelled along predefined paths which       sooner rather than later neural machine
you might not even have known to exist        translation tools will be further refined,
and which might not at all correspond         incorporating ever greater quantities
to your own writing style as it has           of text corpora and ever more subtle
developed over time. This might result        logarithms doing greater justice to
in a constraint if not a loss of linguistic   complex grammatical features.
and literary competence in terms of

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                                              Hans-Christian Oeser studied German
                                              and Politics in Marburg and Berlin. In 1980
                                              he moved to Ireland to take up a post as
                                              Lecturer in German at UCD. Since then he
                                              has been working as a literary translator
                                              of works by, amongst others, Jamie
                                              O’Neill, Patrick McCabe, Sebastian Barry
                                              and Christopher Isherwood, as an editor
                                              and travel writer. Oeser received several
                                              awards for his translations, including the
                                              2010 Rowohlt Prize for his life’s work. His
                                              website offers an overview of his work.

Hans-Christian Oeser
Photo: Barbara Schaper-Oeser

My savvy computer linguists seem              I, for my part, shall continue to avail
to think that the advantages of both          of electronic tools but, being conscious
machine translation and human                 of the dangers arising to my artistic
translation could be combined by              autonomy, only to spot-check and not
“personalising” the tools on offer.           over a wide area of text. As an organised
By means of computer-aided text               community, however, we must strive
analysis all previous works of one            to resist and reject any attempt by
literary translator could be assembled        publishers (some of whom are already
as a comprehensive text corpus which          rumoured to contemplate steps in that
would form the basis for future text          direction) to transform, as part of a cost-
generation to be used and polished            minimising exercise, from machine-
by the selfsame translator.                   aided human translation to human-
                                              aided machine translation that which is
For now, I would propose that every           rightly our work. We will have to be the
literary translator ought to have the         Luddites of the humanities! For as long
possibility and the right to utilise every    as publishers regard literary translation
tool at their disposal, that is to say: not   not primarily as a commercial
only analogue and digital dictionaries,       commodity but as a product of the
not only translation memory and               human intellect, the human imagination
terminology management software               and the human spirit, for as long as
but also online or offline translation        they are interested in high literary
programs of every description. On the         quality, we may harbour some hope.
other hand, no literary translator must be
coerced into doing so or made to merely
redact machine translations, with the
corresponding loss of income and status.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

special feature: machine translation and literature

CAT tools – the
literary translator’s
new assistant?
Katja Zakrajšek shares her
experiences of working with MT

What CAT tools have you used                 supply the original in a format that
for literary translation?                    would allow me to use a CAT tool.
I’ve used both MemoQ and Trados,             I may get paper, or scanned copies
mostly the latter. I think they are          – whatever was obtained from the
comparable in terms of functionality         agent. It’s all rather 20th century!
for a literary translator. While I also
have some experience with OmegaT, I          Were you offered any training
would not use it for literary translation;   and did using the tools have
I find the interface is not suited to        any influence on your fees?
that. What you need – at least, what         I’ve had some training for MemoQ,
I need – is having the original and          which is very transferable to Trados,
the translation side-by-side.                but that was on my own initiative. And
                                             I’ve had a lot of peer-to-peer help,
What kind of texts did you                   mostly from non-literary translators,
use CAT tools for?                           who are more likely to use CAT tools.
Creative fiction and nonfiction. For         My fees have remained the same.
verse – especially rhymed verse – I feel
the need to go freeform on the page.         How do CAT tools affect the quality
                                             of your translations and the
Was it your choice or did a publisher/       amount and nature of the work?
employer ask you to use a CAT tool?          I don’t think a publisher would
It’s entirely my choice. If anything,        necessarily notice a difference in the
publishers tend to be surprised              end result, but the CAT tools certainly
– and sometimes even unable to               make a difference in the process of

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                                             Katja Zakrajšek translates from English,
                                             French and Portugese into Slovenian,
                                             moving between the humanities
                                             and literary fiction, where she is
                                             particularly interested in writing by
                                             African and African-diasporic authors.
                                             Currently working on Girl, Woman,
                                             Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

                                             Katja Zakrajšek
                                             Photo: Gordana Grlič

getting there. It’s just easier to produce   How common, in your view, is the use of
a consistent translation. Sometimes I        machine translation tools in your field?
use glossaries, which are really meant       In literary translation, it’s not common
for terminology but work just as well if     at all. It’s not unheard of – I tried it at
a literary text has words or phrases that    the recommendation of another literary
crop up repeatedly. (Or for names, so I      translator – but so far, we’re a small
don’t have to misspell and then correct      minority. It may be more common
them a hundred times.) Translation           among people who move between
memories help with repetitions and           literary and non-literary translation.
variations as well. Furthermore, a CAT
tool makes it easier not to miss bits of     How do you see the future of literary
text. And for rereading and checking         translation in the light of CAT tools?
the translation? It’s glorious. Finally,     However helpful CAT tools are, I don’t
I find it’s a more ergonomic way of          see them revolutionising literary
going about translation – a somewhat         translation even if – or when – they
unexpected but invaluable advantage          become more widespread. The main
for me. (Book below screen, book             tool is still the literary translator’s
beside screen, two screens: I’d tried        brain, aided and abetted by their peer
them all, with no luck. There’s a lot to     network and the book’s editorial team.
be said for not being in pain because
of your work.) On the other hand, I
have lost work to mysterious technical
issues with the tool. It’s not perfect.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

special feature: machine translation and literature

Less room for
Researcher Waltraud Kolb on
literature and machine translation

Could you describe the main                   to post-edit a machine-translated
focus of your research?                       version (DeepL). To capture these
My research on machine translation is         processes for later analysis, they used
part of a larger ongoing research project     keylogging software that unobtrusively
regarding decision-making in literary         registered keystrokes, pauses, edits,
translation. Why do we translate the way      etc. At the same time, they talked
we do? Why and how is one word chosen         aloud while working, voicing their
over another, one style over another?         thoughts and reflections, and this was
How do decisions, processes, and              audio-recorded. I have an enormous
routines involved in translating a literary   amount of data, keylogs and verbal
work differ from the cognitive processes      records, and am currently analyzing it.
that go into post-editing a machine

translation of a literary text? How does
this impact the final target text?

What methods you use?
Traditionally, we look at published
                                              post-editing is
translations, prefaces or interviews by
translators to study translation; but         not much faster”
that kind of analysis comes “after the
fact”, as George Steiner once famously        What gave you the idea for the
said. Through my research, I aim to gain      topic of this research project?
insight into the translation process as       Translators and publishers have started
it happens, the translator’s (and post-       using machine translation, even if,
editor’s) thinking, but also their actions    more often than not, it is probably still
when they work on auto-pilot. I asked         in an experimental stage. Computer
five literary translators to translate an     linguists and the machine translation
Ernest Hemingway short story from             community have also begun to pay
scratch and five different translators        attention to literary translation from

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

                                            Waltraud Kolb is Assistant Professor of
                                            Literary Translation at the University of
                                            Vienna. She studied translation (English,
                                            French, Portuguese/German) and holds a
                                            PhD in comparative literature. One focus of
                                            her research is literary translation processes
                                            and machine translation. She has been
                                            working as a freelance translator since 1985
                                            and is a member of the executive board
                                            of the Austrian Association of Literary

                                            Waltraud Kolb
                                            Photo: Private Archive

their own unique perspective, while         How do you see the future of
it is still largely unexplored from a       literary translation in relation to
literary translation studies perspective.   machine translation tools?
                                            I expect to observe a shift away from
Can you tell us something about             translation to post-editing work in the
your preliminary results?                   medium term, with the key factor being
One result, not surprising, is that         time: will it be faster to translate a book
high-quality post-editing is not much       or post-edit a machine version? This
faster: even though Hemingway’s             will be more relevant for some sectors
story is simple and straightforward,        of the book market than for others,
the post-editors changed 90% of the         but generally I anticipate increasing
sentences – the main problems the           pressure from publishers to cut costs
machine had were cohesion, reference,       this way, even though post-editing
idioms, polysemy. Another preliminary       may be as cognitively demanding and
finding is that the two groups seem         time-consuming as translation. And
to distribute their efforts differently.    I am sure this will have all kinds of
While the translators spent ample time      implications for copyright issues. The
on repetitions and ambiguity, stylistic     other issue at stake is quality, and the
features typical of Hemingway, the post-    main risk I see is that post-editing will
editors did so to a much lesser extent.     often not be done by translators. Is there
This indicates that engagement with the     also a long-term risk that, with the
source text/author differs between the      increasing use of machine translation,
two modes. With post-editing, there is      (literary) language will eventually
an additional layer to deal with, much of   become more uniform? Possibly.
the cognitive effort going into deciding
what to do about the machine version,
and this seems to leave less room for
engagement with the source text/author.

Counterpoint • No.4 • 2020

special feature: machine translation and literature

The future
relationship of literary
translation and AI
Reflections from CEATL president
                                              Morten Visby
While it is certainly an interesting          we might not like it, the fact is that
question how AI-based machine                 machine translation of genre literature
translation would fare in dealing             is actually quite good – meaning that it
with densely written, highly complex          is not always obvious whether a human
literature, particularly when translating     being or a machine have translated the
between languages and cultures that           text. And in this regard, it is important
are very far apart linguistically or          not to take free Google Translate services
historically, the more pressing concern       as an indication of the level of quality
for literary translators living and working   for AI translation. Also, due to the logic
today and tomorrow is the commercial          of ever-increasing processing power
viability of AI-based machine translation     AI translation can only be expected
of contemporary genre literature, not         to become even better. And we know
least when the languages are closely          from unpleasant experiences in other
related – e.g. the Nordic languages or        quarters of our professional field that
the Romance languages. I am referring         publishers are, if not more than happy,
to the translation of crime, suspense         then at least sometimes willing to
and romance between linguistic                accept less good, but workable solutions
domains that are closely related in           to translation. Particularly if these
time and culture. At this moment we           solutions hold promise of a cheaper
need to look at the actual, real-life         and more streamlined production of
implications of AI-assisted machine           translated literature, to the detriment of
translation for us as literary translators.   what would otherwise be considered fair,
And regarding that issue, I do have           decent and sustainable in the long term.
a couple of notes. Some of them are
rather pessimistic. Others less so.           So, let’s get real on this topic. This is
                                              not the time to feel safe in the belief
Getting real on people vs. machines           that the human brain will always, in
I believe that we underestimate the           the end, be superior to stupid machines.
powers of AI at our own peril. Although       The issue of AI in literary translation

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