Translation with Artificial Intelligence

I’ve done some experimentation recently with some of the new Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems for processing language. More specifically, I have been experimenting ChatGPT, which is a “chat-bot” that leverages a large language model called GPT-3.5 that can “understand” human language in order to converse with humans. I’m not here to talk about the risks and dangers of AI, but in this case to discuss its utility in translating ancient documents, as I have been doing for several years. Did I just waste six years of hard work translating An Explanation of the Book of Judith?

I took a paragraph from the commentary and asked ChatGPT to translate it for me. The following Latin is what I provided to ChatGPT:

Quid est Judith “in eminentiorem locum ascendere” nisi sanctam ecclesiam ad superna et caelestia dogmata sermonem convertere, ut illuc nostros animos sustollat et ad laudandum Deum pro universis beneficiis suis, quae misericorditer vero impendit Israheli, torpentes provocet? Cuius virtus hostem antiquum interfecit in manu illius feminae, de qua ad callidum serpentem in primordio Dominus ait: “Ipsa conteret caput eius.” Et cui ipsa Veritas in evangelio ait: “Ecce dabo vobis potestatem calcandi super serpentes et scorpiones, et super omnem virtutem inimici.”

My translation follows (Chapter 13, verse 22):

What does it mean that Judith goes up to a higher place, if it does not mean that the Holy Church shifts the discourse toward supernal and celestial doctrine to lift our spirits to that level and call forth our lethargic spirits to praise God for all their blessings that he most mercifully bestows upon Israel, the God whose power destroyed the ancient enemy by the hand of that woman about whom the Lord said to the cunning serpent in the beginning, “she shall crush thy head,” (Gn 3:15) and to whom the very Truth said in the Gospel, “Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” (Lk 10:19).

ChatGPT responded with:

“What is it for Judith to ‘ascend to a higher place’ except to turn the holy church to discourse on the heavenly and celestial dogmas, so that she may lift our souls there and stir them up to praise God for all his merciful benefits, which he truly bestows on Israel, who were lethargic and disobedient? Whose virtue killed the ancient enemy in the hand of that woman, about whom the Lord said to the cunning serpent in the beginning, ‘She will crush your head.’ And to whom the Truth herself said in the gospel, ‘Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.'”

Let’s compare these translations a bit. First, ChatGPT gets a Latin construct called an accusative-with-infinitive clause wrong near the beginning. Sanctam ecclesiam ad superna et caelestia dogmata sermonem convertere is translated, “to turn the holy church to discourse on the heavenly and celestial dogmas.” If you don’t understand this later construct found quite frequently in the writings of Rabanus Maurus, then ChatGPT’s response makes sense. But this construct turns things around a bit and makes a word that we’d normally expect to be a direct object into the subject of the clause. So Sanctam Ecclesiam is in the accusative case, but it acts as the subject in this clause rather than the direct object. The Holy Church does the turning (or convertere) of the discourse (or sermonem) rather than Judith turning the Church to this discourse.

Another interesting thing to point out is that ChatGPT translates ipsa Veritas into “the Truth herself.” This is actually technically correct. Veritas has feminine gender in Latin. ChatGPT doesn’t have the context of the scripture reference and consequently doesn’t know that the person making the quote in the Gospel of Luke is Christ himself, who is a man. So I, understanding that, avoid the issue by translating the phrase, “the very Truth.” ChatGPT’s translation here is more literal.

I also tried some other examples and found that ChatGPT does a pretty good job across the board, but makes enough mistakes at this time that I would be very careful in using it to translate Latin. It’s good enough to do a quick check on some ancient document to see what the author probably thought about a particular thing, but I wouldn’t depend on its translations for anything important. It does prove useful in exploring alternative phrasings and accelerating word choice during translation. I have been known to spend upwards of an hour choosing the appropriate word. ChatGPT pretty quickly gives you some good choices.

Will AI replace translators in the future? I don’t know, but it seems a lot more possible now than it did 5 year ago.