‘Machines Are not Translators’ — Europe’s Literary Translators Push Back on AI

Translators Push Back against AI

On November 15, 2023, the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL, in French) published a “Statement on Artificial Intelligence” to express the collective beliefs and demands of its member organizations around the use of generative AI in the publishing industry. Included in the federative body are 34 translators’ associations across Europe. 

CEATL has existed since 1993 as a way to centralize advocacy efforts for the benefit of about 10,000 individual literary translators representing 26 European countries. The organization’s activities around its stated mission to “improve status and working conditions of translators” include lobbying and public stances, such as the Statement on Artificial Intelligence, to give members a unified voice in the context of economic, legal, and social issues.

The CEATL communique around AI addresses multiple points of contention linked to authoring and intellectual property rights, and is one of many joint statements on the subject published by European organizations grouping authors, translators, and performers throughout 2023.  

One of those statements, cosigned by CEATL on September 26, 2023 and 12 other organizations under the European Writers’ Council (EWC) AISBL, another federation of 49 organizations of writers and translators in 31 countries, “urgently call[s] for a human centric approach to generative AI, built upon informed consent, transparency, fair remuneration and contractual practices.” 

In its November 15 stance on AI, CEATL included several demands, one preceded by a statement that “Literary translation exists through ART: Authorisation, Remuneration, Transparency” and asking that “any transfer of copyrighted material for commercial use, such as AI training, should always be negotiated by the author as an opt-in clause.” 

Other demands elaborate on enforcement of transparency requirements for AI companies, and for no public funding to be allocated to generative AI publishing.

Europe’s AI Act

Starting in April 2021, multiple European institutions and advisory bodies began drafting documents that include discussion summaries (“opinions”), reports, and draft proposals for the European AI Act

While the main legislative proposal draft available online is the one that dates back to 2021, negotiations and challenges to the legal terms continued up until the day before CEATL published its statement: on November 14, some EU member states, including France and Germany, rejected certain regulations fearing they would put European businesses at a competitive disadvantage, the move effectively suspending negotiations.

CEATL was one of 13 signatories on a statement prompted by the suspension of negotiations on the AI Act, an “Urgent Letter of Concern.” The letter, published by the European Writers’ Council, asks officials to reconsider “the position of the objecting countries and get back to the point of consensus already reached in October,” referring to the agreement reached on October 24 during the EU Technical Meeting about a foundation model (defined during the meeting as an “AI model that is capable to competently perform a wide range of distinctive tasks”).

Translators, not “Translatoids”

As part of its statement on generative AI, CEATL included its views on machine translation, saying that “Machines are not translators but ‘translatoids’. They do not translate; they generate textual material.”

The statement further defends that “literary translators translate texts embedded in their cultural, social, and historical context for readers who are also embedded in their own specific contexts. Translation requires an understanding of these contexts and skill at creative writing. No machine can do this without a significant human effort.”