In with the old, in with the new
Two first-of-its-kind books representing two prominent publishing trends rubbed shoulders when they were launched at the Beijing International Book Fair, the world's second-largest book fair, which ended on Aug 26.
At the fair, visitors were able to wear virtual-reality equipment that took them back to historic scenes such as the Red Army's Long March of 1934-36 and the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan in 2008.
They could also relish the magnificence of the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by interacting with their smartphones connected to a big screen displaying images of the canal.
An encyclopedia robot got to show off its skills to enthralled visitors, and some stalls presented the beauty of thousand-year-old Chinese characters or paper binding techniques.
About 300,000 people visited the fair, organizers said, and over its five days, more than 1,000 book events were staged throughout Beijing.
At the fair, 1,520 publishing organizations from 92 countries and regions joined another 1,000 local publishers and cultural-related organizations. What they witnessed was a publishing world pushing on with the task of integrating the very latest technology into everything it does, even as it proudly embraces China's past and holds firm to its cultural roots. In doing so it is well aware that it has a receptive audience not only at home but increasingly abroad.
In short, for Chinese publishers it is a matter of in with the old and in with the new.
On the first day of the fair, visitors were able to get a taste of what may be the world's first book written - well, translated - by artificial intelligence.
The book in question was a Chinese rendering of Blockchain: The Untold Story by Srinivas Mahankali, translated by an identity going by the name of Youdao AI Translator. So efficient was the translator that the Publishing House of the Electronics Industry published the translation simultaneously with the original English version.
"In fact, at first we were a bit worried when we learned that we would be working with a machine translator," said Wang Chuanchen, president of Publishing House of the Electronics Industry.
"However, our confidence was restored when we saw the artificial intelligence's first draft."
It took the AI translator, powered by NetEase Youdao's Neutral Machine Translation technology, 30 seconds or so to render the English book of 100,000 words over 308 pages into Chinese. Liu Renlei, vice-president of Youdao, says the final print version combines AI's primary output with human editing.
The team spent an extra two weeks to finish up, including editing, polishing and rewriting.
"AI keeps learning as it's being fed more linguistic data. In this case the book was quite easy because it's a science work written in plain language, devoid of human emotion. We know how much more work needs to be done before AI can become a perfect translator."
Publishers may well be licking their lips as they admire AI's productivity - they would normally expect a translation such as the one it performed in half a minute to take half a year - but translators, many of whom already feel overworked and underpaid, are likely to have had a less glowing take on what AI holds for their prospects.
In fact, Ray Kurzwell, an American futurist, has been brave - or foolhardy - enough to put a date on the demise of human translators: 2029.
However, Li Changshuan, a professor with the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation at Beijing Foreign Studies University, believes that the superiority of the human brain over electrical circuits and computer chips when it comes to translation is underestimated.
"Of course, AI may be able to help translators, but we have the upper hand when it comes to precision and accuracy."
Be that as it may, Chinese are embracing advanced AI technology in many fields, and last year the annual Government Work Report included the topic for the first time.
In many ways publishing, a venerable business dating back a few centuries, and AI, yet to grow even a first set of teeth, seem ill matched, but the Youdao translation feat signals that these two unlikely partners are beginning to warm to one another, and that is likely to have an impact on Chinese publishing's dealings with the world, Liu said.
In fact one of the topics of conversation at the fair was how our dear new friend AI might help us get a handle on the country's rich stock of ancient books.
China National Publications Import& Export (Group) Corp, a major collaborator with overseas interests, signed agreements with three high-tech companies including China Literature Limited and China Unicom to explore a cloud data center with AI to update quality of service, channels and content to global publishers.
Yang Feng, director of Fly Tek's AI publishing department, brought the topic of AI to the attention of international publishers at the Beijing International Publishing Forum on Aug 21, a day before the fair opened.
AI could help publishing in at least two ways, Yang said. One was in searching for and obtaining content, and the other was in promotional work and deliveries.
"But AI can never, in any sense, shake the core values of publishing. And it will help with customer analysis and planning."
AI would be especially useful with audio books, which have become highly popular, and in the burgeoning knowledge sharing business, he said.
An outsider's eye can often be useful in picking out trends, and staff of Austin Macauley Publishers in Britain told fair organizers that it had detected strong momentum in Chinese digital publishing, particularly with e-commerce being intertwined with social media.
Publishers Weekly quoted Jade Robertson, Austin Macauley Publishers' international publishing director, as saying it was looking at working with Chinese publishers for both print and e-books and that the Beijing fair had been "very much a learning trip to broaden our market knowledge".
One of the many works unveiled in conjunction with the fair served to underline that, while new technology is providing a crucial foundation for Chinese publishing as it faces the future, tomes that point to the country's past will continue to have a pivotal and lucrative role.
The work in question, the 10-volume Ornamental Patterns from Ancient Chinese Textiles, published by Zhejiang University Press, includes a fascinating tale of international conflict wrapped in silk.
When China was living through the early Qing Dynasty and Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) was on the throne, Peter the Great of the Russian Empire fought several battles against the Swedish Empire.
Some failed, and the Russian army's flags were seized by the Swedes and have been carefully archived until this very day.
It turned out that the Russian flags were made of silk and made in China.
To the surprise of Zhao Feng, a silk expert and director of the National Silk Museum in Beijing, these flags that are kept in a Swedish museum fill some of the missing links in our knowledge of early-Qing silk relics in China.
"We didn't know much of what silk products looked like in that period, and now they have been given an appearance thanks to this set of books."
The books are said to be the first of their kind for the breadth of scale in their researching, recording and being able to restore for the public record more than 10,000 ancient silk relics.
With Zhao's series, visitors to the Beijing International Book Fair were thrown into a sea of digital data even as they remained on dry land relishing the continued beauty of printed books.
Let it be noted, too, that this mingling of the old and new is hardly new. In fact, some early telegraph and computer technology is said to owe its creation to careful study and copying of how silk was weaved into patterns on machines in ancient China. That kind of melding of old and new was evident in abundance at the fair.
SDX Joint Publishing Co announced that in conjunction with the global academic publisher Springer Nature it would bring out a work in English on Fujian tulou, rural dwellings particular to the Hakka of Fujian province.
In one work on display at the Beijing fair Citic Press has Ye Luying, a young illustrator, and Yu Zhiying, a writer, retelling stories of the legendary beauty Luo Shen from ancient paintings by Gu Kaizhi (348-409) in an illustrated book.
Organizers said 5,678 copyright deals were completed at the fair, 7.9 percent more than last year. They included 3,610 copyrights that Chinese publishers sold to overseas market, and 2,068 bought from overseas.
Countries related to the Belt and Road Initiative continue to be the top buyers of Chinese copyrights. The fair also featured forums such as the Belt and Road Academic Summit for the New Era by Renmin University Press, and the Belt and Road Publishing Forum by the 16th Beijing International Book Festival.
(Source_title：In with the old, in with the new)