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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Honoring Creative Intent in Translation

I have recently returned from the 64th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association in Miami, Florida. One thing is clear: from conference sessions to networking chats, AI is on everyone's mind and lips. As language professionals, we know what AI can and cannot do, but the same cannot be said about the expectations and assumptions on the client side. In this post, I will share some examples I've collected that highlight the importance of human involvement and stewardship in language work through the lens of creative intent.


Creative intent refers to the unique artistic choices made by authors, which usually take the form of wordplay, giving the text an extra texture of delightful cleverness. When we translate a creative work, it's not enough to convey the literal meaning of the words; we must capture the spirit and intention behind them.


Example 1: "Producing centenarians for centuries."


This is a quote from the Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. It's not an accident that the narrator picked the pairing of two "cent" words to make it melodious to the ears. If AI is to handle this translation, it inevitably renders centenarians as 百岁老人 and centuries as 世纪, ruining the creative intent because the etymology for "century" in Chinese has nothing to do with a hundred.


A perceptive human translator, however, would pick up this nuance and rephrase centuries into hundreds of years, showing the pairing of 百岁老人 (a-hundred-year-olds) and 百年 (hundreds of years) in the Chinese output.


Example 2: "From the bee to your tea."


This line is from the same documentary, discussing the fact that the honey consumed in the blue zone is not filtered or boiled. In the English version, the rhyme is fun and appealing. However, it would not have the same wordplay effect if we were to translate it into Chinese directly.


Again, we need to come up with something that's equally fun to read. In Chinese, bee is 蜜蜂 and honey is 蜂蜜—they have the same characters but just in a different order. This provides a unique opportunity for us to tackle this creatively, highlighting the fact that the process of using bees for honey is just as easy as a flip in order. The word "tea" in the source text, on the other hand, needs not to be preserved because it was a part of the English play-on-word.


Example 3: "It is hard to reconcile an existential threat with glacial progress."


We used an excerpt from this article on The Atlantic for our translation practice group. The "existential threat" refers to climate change, which the author discussed in the foregoing sentence. "Glacial" here is a thoughtful choice of word, as it conjures the image of glaciers—a common reference point for climate change while taking on the meaning of extremely slow.


Out of the four translations we had for the practice, one misunderstood "glacial" to literally mean glaciers here, and two only focused on the "extremely slow" sense of the word. Being a staunch advocate for an equivalent reading experience, I wanted the reader to feel the intentionality of this word choice. Therefore, in my rendition, I worded it as 不能以冰川消融之速徐徐应之, preserving both the "glacier" reference and the "slow" meaning.


In summary, while AI is a powerful tool, it has its specific usage in specific scenarios. In fact, the rise of AI makes the role of a perceptive, creative translator even more vital. After all, it takes a human to know a human.

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