Frank Wynne is an Irish literary translator, writer and editor. He translates from the French and Spanish into English. This is an excerpt from his speech at the 2024 French-American Foundation Translation Prize ceremony, where he was the winner for his translation from the French of The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild by Mathias Énar.

Recently, I seem to have had a call every other week asking me to opine on the subject of AI translation. My response is simple – I’m all in favour of AI translation if you simply remove the “A”, and leave the “I”.

“I” is the individual translator tasked not only with transposing the meaning of words, the denotation and the connotation, “I” – and there are many here in this room – is also responsible for weighing the heft and weight of each syllable, each line; of deciding here to favour rhythm over pedantry; there to recreate the harsh consonance of a piece of dialogue, or repaint a startling image so that it feels raw and new. “I” is cheap to run – not that you would think it when you talk to certain publishers – “I” requires only food, water, sunlight and words. Large language models (or Vast Plagiarism Models in my preferred nomenclature) require yottabytes of information, gargantuan computing power, and pantagruelian quantities of water to cool the server farms: all this to aspire to something that is adequate.

Publishers could – and doubtless will – get machines to ingest vast screeds and “write” novels. Using current technology, you can get a computer to play the Goldberg Variations using samples from a 1730 Cristofori fortepiano. No one seems to be queueing up to hear them, perhaps because they understand that to hear music, is to hear it performed. The result of such mechanistic performance may well be adequate – but the nature of art, of music, of literature is that it speaks of what it means to be human. It is the product of an endless chain of decisions, some conscious, others less so, and the end result, like anything human, can be as flawed, brilliant, visceral, and innovative as the “I” that creates.

Literature – in every form, in every language – is the product of translators. Without Miguel de Cervantes, there could be no Lawrence Sterne, without Francesco Petrarch, no William Shakespeare, without George Eliot, no Marcel Proust. Mathias Énar, in this novel, takes liberal inspiration from François Rabelais, without whom John Cowper Powys, Jonathan Swift and James Joyce would be mortally impoverished. In working on the translation, I read half a dozen translations of Rabelais, from the earliest translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who deviates wildly from the original in many ways, yet is linguistically dazzling, viscerally funny, and gloriously obscene, to recent, more faithful translations. Each offered shards of brilliance and insight, each illuminated the text in ways I had not anticipated.

The kernel of every work of art, in any medium, is the sound of a human voice seeking to be heard. At a time when literature, especially anglophone translation, urgently needs to embrace diversity, to open itself up to include more translators of colour, more L2 translators, more queer/trans/non-binary translators, there is a noisy section of the publishing industry suggesting that the myriad individual “I”s could be replaced by a single monolithic voice that spews the tattered shreds of stolen copyrighted material.

If we entrust our art to machines, they will in time, perhaps, create a simulacrum of art that is adequate. But adequate is a poor substitute for human.