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The AI translation fascination

The AI translation fascination

Posted on 08 Jan 2024

With the news of Bushiroad Works adopting an AI-first approach to translations of The Ancient Magus' Bride in order accelerate distribution, we've seen yet another wave of drama as some fans celebrate the move in a bid to deprive more politically motivated translators from the production process and keep the intentions of the Japanese authors consistent with their vision. 

And they have a point.

Things weren't always as they are now....

To say that translations of Japanese content have only recently become contentious would be massively disingenuous. Truthfully, we're years into a niche culture war that started when anime was first marketed in the UK under Manga Entertainment, where dystopian cyber-futures and gore were very much the calling-card of the medium. Certainly the public only knew of it as objectionable animated video nasties, at least until SNES magazine Super Play (through the articles of Helen McCarthy) and Manga Max/Anime UK came along to explore the less contentious side of Japanese animation.

Even these early releases were only very loosely translated, best evidenced by the likes of Cyber City Oedo 808, with the expletive-laden dub a far cry from the more considered original script, but catering to the expectations of the local market to make it a fan favourite - to the point that Anime Ltd included it in the recent Blu Ray release. Manga Entertainment never claimed to be anything other than a purveyor of cheap thrills however, and only years of exposure to the medium have brought anime into the mainstream and therefore higher regard. We're long past the idea of anime being in its teenage rebellion phase and such hedonistic localisations would certainly never be made in today's more PC-obsessed culture.

The political rot

Where things started to get a bit more sinister was, as with almost everything these days, the birth of the more overt culture war we're fighting today. Somehow, localisers decided that anime was "their medium" with which to voice their own political opinions. Where the early localisations were a capitalist decision to boost sales, the use of politically charged words like "incel" and "patriarchy" started appearing, most notably in translations of titillating material like Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. An infamous exchange between a fan and translator/voice actress Jamie Marchi, where she asserted that "she has a vagina" and can make changes to the meaning of an artists work "because I am a woman" have recently resurfaced. This in no small part due to internet personality Asmongold posting a video showing his amused reaction to both the translation and Marchi's encounter.

Marchi's ugly and aggressive swipe that she's "sorry you're not getting laid, move on" is typically unprofessional and unfunny (despite her assertations that she is "powerful" and "funny" she has proven to be neither - powerful people don't attack when questioned, and spite isn't funny). 

Another event that proved to be contentious was the deliberate mistranslation by Seven Seas of the manga I Think I turned My Childhood Friend Into A Girl, wherein a male character who had taken to cross-dressing, was misrepresented as a trans character. In this case, the Japanese rights holder put pressure on the Western distributor to correct the translation and reprint the book. 

Other notorious translators such as Katrina Leonoudakis tweeted to bring attention to the issue, though she was ratio'd by fans who have been long time critics of her translations and was infamously vocal about Shonen manga catering to teenage boys. Which is of course who it is made for. Furthermore, tweets from the likes of @KrisNigge who stated that "The joy of localization really is seeing what you can get away with" aren't helpful to translators now looking for support from a customer base some of them are openly hostile toward.

All of this is to say that the core news has been rapidly overtaken by fighting and personal attacks, or as we mostly know it another day on the internet.

What do the Japanese think?

For what feels like (though definitely isn't) the first time, the Japanese themselves seem to have noticed the mistranslation of their cultural output, and many of them aren't too happy with it. @RayforceGame posted a thread on twitter/X that sparked a lot of debate, essentially lamenting that it took a famous Youtube gamer (Asomgold) to draw attention of the Japanese public to what's been going on for years, though mangaka like Ken Akamatsu took the issue to the Japanese parliament in 2021 (and has since been elected!), so the industry hasn't been blind to the practice.

Predictably many Japanese commentators weren't impressed, as the Japanese still have a demonstrable pride in their country and culture of the sort long since abandoned by the Western left, who seemed incensed that anyone should question their vandalism of content made by another country, because when they do it the act is somehow noble.

I'm always confused by this; the left are fiercely against the colonisation and destruction of other cultures to the point that a 9 year old wearing his team colours painted on his face is pounced on by mainstream media as "cultural appropriation" for supposed "blackface", but are apparently fine with appropriating a foreign property if they can use it to bash their political opponents and misrepresent the cultural sensitivities of the native country.

I think the majority of us are just sick of the hypocrisy at this point.

Not all localisers are equal

I should point out that I've actually interviewed localisers for the UK Anime Network over the years, working with manga companies to promote their product and their company, and many have been very knowledgeable and respectful of the material they're entrusted with. It's no surprise that there are a few bad apples (examples above) but I don't think the whole base is rotten, which puts the good eggs at risk of the dole queue along with the bad ones, and this is a genuine shame.

I've also acted in a censorship role with Japanese publishers, notably on artbooks, giving my opinion on what is and is not suitable for a Western market as part of a panel. In the main these have been works that depict very young characters in a sexual context, and I've always been quite clear that if a work isn't suitable it should be left unedited and unreleased in the West. Some may balk at this "book banning" approach, but I'm more concerned with the safety of children than allowing anything through in the name of free-speech. So I'm not an absolutist for free expression by any means. I'm sure that will divide opinion on me, and that's fine.

What I don't like is someone deliberately mistranslating a work to serve a political agenda (regardless of direction), and in this I'm not alone either here or in Japan.

So, can AI do the job?

So putting all the politicised narcissistic noise behind us for a moment, let's see if AI can actually translate a work sympathetically. Now in written format this is a doddle, I've often used online translators to help me with foreign text, working as I do in Vietnam, Korea and Japan several months of each year. Google Glass can translate a menu just fine, and even liner notes in artbooks are no longer a mystery to those of us who can't read kanji. I've tried it on several manga and light novels, and though the translations could use a little light editing, by and large it's all fine right out of the gate. 

But could AI accurately translate anime?

Now here I have some experience, not with anime but with a video I'm working on. We have an interview with three Japanese creatives (exactly who and why is under wraps for now) but it required editing and translating. With our usual go-to James out of action for the time being, I had to look into alternative methods of getting the interview transcribed, and this led to me testing a variety of tools freely available online. While some were clearly not up to the task, I hit gold with a system called Descript, an online service that translates and adds subtitles to any video - and my goodness it's accurate!

Now, the video has been sent to a translation team in Japan to check the accuracy and make any edits required, but the 50 minute video was thoroughly and accurately translated, even the context being correctly interpreted. To be honest, it pretty much blew my mind.

The future is looking clearer

Having seen the speed and accuracy of AI, it seems clear now that the job of localisers in the current form is coming to an end. Not for any political reasons, simply that technology has made yet another job obsolete. Yes, translations will need to be checked and edited by a human, just as I edit many of UKA's contributors to maintain a professional consistency, but I can't see any argument to leave AI out of the equation entirely. It's too fast, accurate and cheap to implement for any company to resist it.

So long as the AI is instructed to translate directly and without bias, accuracy should be assured. And while this doesn't remove the possibility of the Jamie Marchi's of this world from tinkering with copy to make their trite little stabs at "the patriarchy", it does mean that it's easier than ever to keep human bias out so long as we're careful with who we allow into the editing room. Certainly the Japanese will be scrutinizing their output, as they can now easily translate and control their own work with the oversight that inherently brings. With rights holders now alert to what's going on over here, I expect to see a tighter element of control enforced going forward, if not an outright removal of foreign localisers altogether.

AI is the next industrial revolution, and it has now come for the localisers. As with the Luddites of 1811, I expect that no amount of noise is going to stop the inevitable. 

 

The full Asmongold video is posted here for full context:

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