Saturday, July 29, 2017

Robots, Translation and Me

This week's papers have carried the warning by Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla and Space-X, about the dangers of artificial intelligence, which he calls "the biggest risk we face as a civilization." His concerns have been shared by Stephen Hawking among others. Expert Translators know that their profession is already partly robotized and about the dangers that robotization brings in the hands of a naïve public. I allude of course to machine translation. There is a great deal of hype at present about the application of AI to MT.

It reminds me of the few hours I spent myself as a robot some seventy years ago. Let me explain. At the school I went to, an old-fashioned English 'grammar school', we used to put on a theatrical production each year for the pleasure of our fellow pupils, parents and other well-wishers. They were quite elaborate productions, with makeup and costumes; and good practice for overcoming stage fright. One year we, or rather the teacher in charge, decided the play would be R.U.R. aka Rossum's Universal Robots; and I was cast as one of the robots.

R.U.R. is a science fiction play by the great Czech author and translator Karel Čapek. It was the first of his five plays with a futuristic theme. It begins in a factory that makes artificial people called roboti, from the Czech word robota, which means forced labour. Thus this play is at the origin of our English word robot. The plot develops into a rebellion of the robots that leads to the extinction of the human race, or nearly, because the robots have been given intelligence and feeling. So you can see the connection between Čapek and Musk. But perhaps he most remarkable thing about R.U.R. is that it was written in 1920. And perhaps Čapek was even more prescient than Musk, because the former's robots are not electronic but living creatures from a process that manufactures human body parts. What Vernian or Wellsian genius!

And then translation enters into it. R.U.R. was so enormously successful that by 1923 it had been translated into 30 languages, and later there were film and TV intersemiotic adaptations. One of the first target languages was English of course. It goes to show how lively the literary translation scene was in those days. The English version we used was the standard translation by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair (see References below). It was a product of a technique often used in theatrical translations: a draft by a bilingual which is then polished into more actable speech by person with stage experience in the target language. In this case the linguist was Paul Selver and the man of the theatre was Nigel Playfair. Selver (1888-1970) was the initial translator; he was a prolific translator from Czech and other languages to English besides being an author in his own right, though he was born in England. Nigel Playfair (1874-1934) was in the English tradition of actor-managers, knighted for his management of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (a London borough), in the 1920s. There are many editions of the Selver-Playfair, but we used the one put out for stage performance by Samuel French, the Anglo-American publisher that's been a mainstay of the amateur theatrical community, including schools, since the late 19th century because besides publishing texts they also license performances.

Karel Čapek, Wikipedia, 2017.

R.U.R. Wikipedia, 2017.

Karel Čapek. R.U.R. Translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. London: Samuel French. Click [here] or go to

Paul Selver. Wikipedia, 2016.

Nigel Playfair. Wikipedia, 2017.    

For one of the several intersemiotic adaptations, click [here] or go to 

Poster for a stage performance of RUR, New York, 1939. Source: Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. Really Good blog post.provided a helpful information.I hope that you will post more updates like this.
    MSBI Training in Chennai