Thoughts on MTL

Since the late trend is to discuss about machine translation, I thought I might as well chime in.

Note: This does not reflect the thoughts of any of the staff members that work for Heretic.

When I joined the English LN community back in 2010 – the LN community being Baka-Tsuki – so I could get to know more about these books, I decided to put my skills to use. Back then, I was just a 13-year-old high school student, and I had very poor knowledge of both English and Chinese. I mean, it was a language I learned mostly by playing Runescape and watching Harry Potter. I still decided to give it a try, because it sounded like a fun experience.

My early translations were disgustingly horrible, as you would expect. I kept the original sentence structure because I didn’t bother giving flow to my sentences, and made some basic mistakes such as keeping the original punctuation, translating literally, attempting to simply do word-to-word translation, etc.

Still, I have not once being tempted to do machine translating. For one, I went websites such as Google Translate with the intent of using it as a tool similar to a dictionary. I quickly noticed however that it filters out all subtlety the text brought and makes some basic mistakes as well.

Another reason why I did not fall in the habit of machine-translating is that it was highly, highly discouraged by my peers at that time. The “Preview” tag for machine translations can also be read as “Garbage” for many. Falling into the habit of using machines to translate meant was an absolute no-go, especially as a new translator. The way to go was learn, translate, learn by translating, learn, translate, etc.

In any case, the re-apparition of machine translation started with EnigmaticAxiom’s work on Madan no Ou to Vanadis. It has been hyped before the translations were posted by the new guard of LN lovers that were thirsty for specific types of novels, novels that include a certain amount of fanservice (more than just panty shots), a diverse harem of strong girls (more than just tsunderes), a main character that is rather strong or powers up quite fast, etc. So they tried Enigmatic’s work and found out that his work was a readable machine translation. Regardless of translation accuracy, readers loved his work, since it could be read like an actual novel. Way better than reading novel summaries, which were (and may still be as of today) the trend.

Looking back, EnigmaticAxiom’s case was a Pandora’s box. Had it been blocked totally with a tolerance-zero approach on machine translations, you likely won’t see as much machine translation today. Yes, machine-translating would pierce through eventually, but certainly not as fast. The simple act of allowing it has opened up the idea that machine translation was viable. And finally months later, with the popularity of webnovels, machine translating has become an “acceptable evil” that is necessary to make Japanese content accessible to readers.

Ever since machine translation became an issue for BT to deal with, my opinion on them have swung back and forth between “to be tolerated” and “to be eradicated”. In my case, I more or less reached a conclusion on that topic.

The major problem is obviously the accuracy of the English content. Some groups actually send translation checkers, which make them a notch above the rest of pure machine translators. In theory, there should be no problem. However, a good amount of work is necessary to change words, sentences or even huge blocks of text because of a misinterpretation error by the machine translator. For a bad machine translation, it is simply faster for the TL checker to translate the damn thing by himself or herself. Re-structuring a sentence is, I think, the most painful thing to do. If something needs to be corrected, you must break the chain, replace the good part and find a way to regroup the pieces together. It is demanding, and probably even harder if you feel that connotation was lost in the translation. In any case, I would find a translation like this acceptable, though TL checking is not popular and it sounds somewhat inefficient.

On the other hand, machine translations with no form of checking whatsoever before making an interpretation can be the source of major mistakes. One example that I have in head is when a translator screwed up a line, and ended up interpreting what should be contents of a dream into something in reality. Things like these messes up a ton lot with the translation, and no one would notice this problem. The machine translator in charge would also modify future paragraphs so the meanings match. For instance, if I were to mistakenly assume A-chan, an evil girl who appears in MC’s dream as his girlfriend, as MC’s actual girlfriend, the way conversations between the two are translated would be greatly affected. An issue like this could go on and on if no one with access to the source were to read the English version.

As for those who do machine translations and who don’t know how to create a coherent sentence structure…Sorry, but they should not even be translating. Luckily, I don’t remember many examples of translations like these, but as the standards get lower and lower, stuff like that might happen more.

Many people who see nothing wrong with machine translating have criticized a few translators for their “elitist” attitude. I disagree with some of their arguments, but I think they are right to denounce translation that is done by decoding fragments of stuff they do not know about and gluing them together. When words and meanings are lost in translation, labeling that work as an English version of the original content is wrong.

I believe that if the light novel community could draw a line separating what is fine and what is not, things would go better. And maybe it’s time to discard a certain amount of (bad) content so the norm for English LNs doesn’t get worse.

13 Replies to “Thoughts on MTL”

  1. Machine Translating… I honestly think that it’s fine as long as the translator has a basic grasp of the language and not enough knowledge to fully translate it themselves. But what the hell do I know.

    1. You make a good point I mostly believe a MT should be use just to help with kanji you don’t know. A friend of mine told me that people use this example to dismiss Yoraikun translation of Tate no Yuusha for using megane.

      all of these are ‘taiyou’
      if you use megane they appear as taiyou, which is the most likely one you’ll pick?”

      So I told him that since I use Chiitran2 as a aid if I put those in it will give me the romaji, hiragana, and the defintion of what each one means. I think the thing most people need to know about MTL is it won’t properly structure sentence and give you the right meaning all the time if you don’t have understand of the grammar, and the most important to me the particles, it will be basically impossible to give a good accurate translation. Basically using a MT can be good or bad dependent upon the usage of it.

    2. I think you are wrong in that. Different translator (the one who don’t use MT) will produce different sentences but the same meaning, so if you want to find something that really accurate that reflect what the author wanted, I think it’s really hard. Maybe the author made a sentences that he/she thought was cool but after translated to english it might be not as cool as the original. That’s why this is the work of translators to make the sentences readable and deliver what the author wanted to.

      So I think MT translated not bad as long as the translator got the meaning and transform it to something that author envisioned when making the story. The wrong one is the translator who put on garbage and translators who become dependent to MT without trying to improve himself/herself.

      Translation not just about Japanese but about english too( in case for japanese-english translation) so it’s wrong to blame MT, afterall it’s just a tool to help translating not a translator so it will not help for sentences structure, better wording, and etc. In this case there are also editor (not the one who can only check the grammar), so as long as translator got the meaning right, it’s up to editor to make the sentences beautiful.

      Last, the discord in translator’s world between what they said elitist and MT translator. I think, the wrong one are in elitist. Don’t provoke the MT translator, let them be. If the translator is good the mass will accept it if not they will not even bother. So what’s wrong with that, if the elitist have problem with that then translate a better one and quicker one. I said this not because I’m MT translator or their defender but it just because this is just pointless thing to debat for. Why don’t concentrate on yourself. Why need bother other when they didn’t bother you.

  2. MTL imo is just to satisfy the people’s desire for reading. for each of the stories that are translated, there are probably 10 that are inaccessible to people of another language. MTL allows those novels to be translated quickly and given to the public that devours the story quickly and skims through, grasping the main ideas but not caring about the error in the text.

    although this is satisfying to some people, other who actually prefer to have the whole story in it’s entirety with all of the details that the author wanted the reader to have (foreshadowing is basically nonexistent in MTL imo), actual translation is a good option. MTL is just a way to give the novel to people who want to speed read a story without caring for errors and has a much lower skill requirement than actual translations (completely bias, i know).

    all in all, MTL is just another form of translation that usually grasps the main points and gives the people a story. you could argue that it is a very detailed summary (no offence to those who thing otherwise), but i personally prefer a full translation that lets me grasp the complexities of the writing and the deeper thought of the author in making the book.

    completely personal; you don’t have to agree with any of what i said.

  3. There is I feel a sort of self selection in what would be translated that comes with demanding that machine translations be discouraged. There is only a few prominent translators that do translations directly from Korean/Japanese/Chinese and goes through the editorial process. This creates a bias towards translating only the few genres and published material that a proficient fan translator might prefer. By creating a prohibitive social atmosphere to machine translating, I feel a lot of fans of otherwise “low-quality” webnovels would have missed experiencing them from Korean ones like LMS to Japanese ones like Mushoku Tensei or Tate no Yuusha.

    TL;DR there aren’t enough proficient fan translators on the world to keep up with demand. I feel MT just supplement such endeavors.

  4. a certain classified tags might be needed to classify wich one is translated and wich one machine translation. sure it is wrong to say that it’s english version if you just machine translated it because there’s a lot of words in japanese that doesn’t come in english term. translator can replace the term to something smiliar while machine translator can’t and will fail translating it and instead a completely different line will be placed instead.
    i think it’s reasonable to get angry for that.

  5. I honestly do wonder how many people that say a translation (MTL or not-MTL) is good actually knows Japanese and has read the source. Because good grammar =/= accurate tl. Of course I’m not talking about being literal when I say accuracy, it’s just some line/lines maybe inaccurately translated and have a completely different meaning, and these people probably wouldn’t even notice just because it doesn’t have Google Translate grammar, and yet they’ll still say a translation is good.

  6. Personally, I think MTL’s really are garbage and I don’t care how elitist that makes me.

    Objectively speaking, if someone wants to MTL then it’s all fine and dandy as long as the reader knows it’s MTL. If so, the reader makes a choice to read it, nobody’s cutting off their eyelids, going “Read it, bitch!!!”

    MTL’s might discourage a different normal translator from picking up the same series, but again – it’s their choice. Plus, they’ll be translating something else instead, something that’ll make other ppl happy if not you.

    Also, someone in the comments of “unlimited novel translations” said that the novels being MTL’ed are mostly poor quality in the first place. I agree.

    And I’ll just say something concerning my own translations and me. While I do enjoy dissing other group’s poor quality, I try my hardest to make my translation as good as possible. Because in the end, there are two ways to make myself feel good about my TL – notice how many ppl are doing a worse job than me and improving my own TL. But only the second one actually changes something about me that matters and can’t be taken away. Take from this what you will.

  7. The demand for new story and the supply of good translator is just not balance.
    and summary is not even enough anymore. plus there is not many ‘good’ translator that willing to translate niche story or story that some “elitshit” declare as shitty just because its using popular formula.

    I admit that I like quick release more than has to wait for month just waiting for QC to complete.

  8. Your point that no translation is better than a bad translation isn’t exactly a solution for the lack of translators you know. There are dozens of titles discontinued translations without a future.

    We can only hope that google upgrade their translation engine.

    1. rather than hoping for google to better the translation engine.It’s faster to learn the language yourself. You can said something like that because you didn’t know Japanese sentences structure, it’s harder than english. If you want a good translation engine for Japanese language maybe you need a good AI which as smart as human.

  9. If the author’s going to condemn the translators using MTL as their method, would he be taking on ALL of their works?

    I don’t think so.

    This situation is just a natural effect of flood of LN (and web Nov) and having little to no translator at all willing to take them on.

    Mr. Light Yagami, the world isn’t black and white. Don’t kill off someone (or something) just because YOU think he is evil.

  10. Sometimes machine translation may be the only way to get a novel translated or even people interested in translating it.

    As someone debating about I may have to figure out machine translation, I feel like I need to comment on this. You see I have a novel, I want translated. I tried to get it translated for 3 years, and even offered money (when I had the money). However, I have come to the realization that no one else might be willing to translate it. Why? Because It’s a very trashy romance novel series, so raunchy that its make Sengakou Rance seem family friendly education. I am an old echii-harem fan and there was no way someone would translate that raunchy stuff back then. However, it also codifies the Harem and fan-service genre for Vanadis and so many LN this days. (It’s kind of easy to codify a genre when you have 20-30 different sequels, and doujin adaption and 1 parody, so yeah…)
    I tested the water last year again, and while people are willing to translate it, it would be like $4 a page and with a 278 page novel. I used to have that kind of money, but I don’t.
    Therefore, sometimes machine translation may be the only way to get a novel translated or even people interested in translating it.

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