Translation, human or AI?

As the idea came up to translate one of my books from the English language it was written in, to what is supposed to be my native tongue: Dutch, I decided to have a go at this challenge. To be fair, it wasn’t really a formal challenge, more like a curiosity of mine if I could do it or not. After all, with all the AI presence online, why would one be as mad as to undertake such a laborious task manually Have I gone mad?

There seem to be a number of methods to switch language on a written text, here are a few:

  • Hire a qualified translator for the job
  • Give it a DIY try
  • Hire a robot or an AI to do the work for you

Given my sales, the first option was out. I did not check the cost of such an undertaking, but given a reasonable minimum hourly rate, I’d already lost all my earnings for my book sales to date after a chapter or two.

The robotic or AI option was rejected for a long list of reasons:

  • Cost, as above. AI for translation of larger volumes of text is not free of charge
  • Quality. Given earlier experiences with Google Translate for smaller texts, I had learned not to have too high expectations for an AI translation
  • Control: I can imagine some English words are allowed in my translations. How would the AI handle these? Surely the goal must be to deliver a translated text!

The DIY option appealed to me the most. Would it be feasible to translate my own English text in the Dutch language where even I would be happy with the result? So it did become a challenge.

The method

Being a technician in heart, there has to be a method to any project, and certainly one like this. After having given this some thought, I decided to just translate paragraph for paragraph, chapter for chapter, keeping the original text on the left of my screen, and the translation on the right. This way I always had an overview of what I originally meant and what language was used to express this meaning.

After finishing each paragraph, I reread the translation to check for errors, grammatical wrongdoings, or readability misdemeanors. Once corrected, I proceeded with the next paragraph.

If a complete chapter was finished, I once again reread the chapter to catch any remaining errors, wrongdoings, or misdemeanors. Deviations from the straight path were adjusted as I went along.

I assumed a human translator would be applying the same or a quite similar method, but perhaps there’s a better and more professional method that I am totally unaware of.

The 1st result

Here is where it gets tricky, at least in my view. I did read the final result once more while scanning for errors. I did find quite a few and called it ready! My co-conspirator and fellow columnist Eef doubles usually as my informal editor. I can ask him to read critically and comment on his findings, and he always does.

From my previous books, I know that the best method for me to find and correct errors is by reading it as a book. And by that, I mean a printed book, as opposed to a digital one. I read the thing with a pencil nearby and start crossing off words or complete sentences while writing notes in the margin.

It is perhaps nice to know that there is such a thing as a ‘writer’s copy’ or ‘author’s copy’ designed to exactly do that. Having three books out for sale, I went through this process three times and have my uncorrected copies sitting on my bookshelf to prove it.

Anyway, I did send my amateur translation to Eef, and he did some reading, and then some more. Meanwhile, he kept track of the aforementioned errors, wrongdoings, and misdemeanors. There were quite a few, but about what I would expect.

Another, and more interesting point he made, was that perhaps my use of my native tongue, the Dutch language, might be slightly under par for this kind of project. For those of you that don’t know, I am Dutch but have been living in Sweden since 1997, and since learned Swedish in a fluent manner. I also use English on a daily basis and like to think to be quite fluent in all three of them. Eef as no other assured me that this is no longer fully the case for my native language. He may be right on that but in my view, that is where the editor comes in, informal or not!

Where I am hardly in a position to comment on my own translation work, Eef is. We discussed some of the issues the Dutch text had and I concluded there were now only two options left:

  • Abort the project and forget about translating my book into Dutch
  • Give it another try

Since this had become a challenge, I’ll go on with the latter option but will be counting on help from my co-conspiritor informal editor Eef.

AI intermezzo

As Eef was reviewing the first version of my text, he got interested to see how my translation compares to the earlier mentioned AI translations. We know there is Google Translate, which I use mostly to get synonyms for English words that were moved from my active to my passive vocabulary. Then there are the new kids on the block, ChatGPT (called Arty in Eef’s columns) and BingGPT, and others. He did run some paragraphs through the different translators to verify and grade their results. Even my translation did get a grade. I will refrain from writing more about this, as I expect <no_pressure>Eef will do us the favor of writing an article on this shortly.</no_pressure>

The 2nd result

Motivated by the high grade I got from Eef, I am currently in the process to repeat the last step of my method: Reread and correct as I go. Keywords: errors, grammatical wrongdoings, and readability misdemeanors. I will keep you posted.

The final result:

The translation is in its final stages and is expected to be ready for publishing during April 2023. The final result will be available here.

De vertaling is in de laatste fase en is naar verwacht klaar voor publicatie in April 2023. Het eindresultaat zal hier verschijnen.


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