Horror stories – when I taught translation technology to university students, I had always started the semester with those. At least three of them. You could ask, weren’t my students frightened enough already? I happen to have the same answer as Aragorn gave Frodo & co., when they first met in the Prancing Pony: Not nearly frightened enough.
The stories I told my students were about translation jobs that simply couldn’t be done without help from technology. Translations of thousand-page books to be upgraded to a new edition in six weeks, editing, proofreading, printing included. Millions of words of automotive manuals to be translated into twenty-plus languages in three weeks. Tens of thousands of words of highly specialized tender documents to be translated over a long week-end, reviewing included, with no compromise possible about the hour of delivery. And the list goes on.
The purpose of these stories was to put technology in perspective for students who had never translated a single word for money before. And when I was to introduce a particular feature of technology, I’d always tried to remember to point to a practical problem where it helped.
At one point in The Imitation Game (again), Commander Denniston enters Alan Turing’s workshop, shuts down Christopher the code-breaking machine, then orders Turing off the premises. The machine is not quite complete. Turing, terrified, protects it with his own body, and insists that the machine will work. He and his work is saved by fellow code-breakers who stand up for him. Then Denniston gives him one more month to make Christopher work.
Aspiring teams of machine translation research weren’t so lucky after, in 1964, the US government thought to set up a committee to look into their progress. The committee, pompously named the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee, or ALPAC in short, was active for two years, engaged in discussions, heard testimonies – and, in 1966, came up with a report that many thought was the nemesis of machine translation research.
Roughly six weeks ago, I went to see The Imitation Game – I caught one of the last English-language screenings in my city. Opinions might vary about this movie, but Alan Turing’s attitude, as shown in the film, reflected the mindset of a true programmer. True programmers, when they face a specific problem, tend to go one abstraction level up, and create a solution not just for the problem at hand, but for an entire class of similar problems. In fact, this is the very attitude that gave us language technology.