Machines as Translators

What can artificial intelligence achieve in literature?

Did a human brain or the neuronal networks of artificial intelligence translate the novel you are currently reading? "AI systems such as Deep Learning can now produce translations for complex texts which are not immediately evident as machine translations," says Dr. Olaf Kühl, award-winning translator and author who is teaching a course on AI and literary translation this winter semester as a visiting lecturer. Titled "The Interdisciplinary Search for the Subject of Translation and the Impregnable Fortresses of Human Creativity" the elective is offered through the Institute of History and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Literature at Faculty I Humanities and Educational Sciences.

"The fact that a literary translation generated by AI cannot be immediately recognized as such of course has consequences for the creative and emancipatory possibilities previously open to humans during translation. If we are replaced by systems whose decisions are not transparent, then we face the threat of disempowerment," says Kühl. "We are examining this development using numerous concrete examples, such as Elfriede Jelinike's translations of the novels by the mysterious American writer Thomas Pynchon and ancient Chinese poems – as Microsoft now also uses these to train its systems.

Scholarship from the German Translation Fund

The course was made possible by the German Translation Fund (Deutscher Übersetzerfonds), which is part of Literarisches Kolloquium Berlin e.V. in Wannsee and financing 46 visiting lectureships for literary translators as part of the federal government's future support package and program "Neustart Kultur."

Since the 1980s Olaf Kühl has translated nearly 50 novels and plays from Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian into German, including "Ein Weg der Hoffnung," the autobiography by Solidarnosc founder and later Polish president Lech Walesa. From 1988 to 1996 he was interpreter and translator for the governing mayor of Berlin and from 1996 to 2021 advisor for Russian affairs. His debut novel "Tote Tiere" was published in 2011. Kühl has received numerous awards for his work, including the German Children's Literature Award for "Schneeweiß und Russenrot" together with Dorota Maslowska in 2005 and a nomination for the German Book Award for his novel "Der wahre Sohn" in 2013. He finds his work with students very inspiring: "It forces me to refine previously cloudy thoughts and clarify these through dialog. As always, I learn just as much in the process as the students."


Author: Patricia Pätzold




This article was originally published in the December issue of the University magazine TUintern.