The use of computers for translating languages is on the increase after a long and chequered history in which at one stage the survival of this specialist area was under threat. More recent understanding of the limitations as well as the potential has seen machine-automated translation applied successfully to specific tasks, writes John Kavanagh.
"The use of computers for translation was first suggested as far back as 1947, not long after useful computers had been developed," says David Wigg, chairman of the BCS Natural Language Translation Specialist Group. "For nearly 20 years a vast amount of work was done on the theory and practice of automating translation, usually referred to as machine translation.
"However, disillusionment grew in the realisation of the extraordinary complexity of language, the meaning of which depended so much on the unspoken knowledge of the world shared by participants. In 1966 a landmark US evaluation report brought an end to almost all support from the US government.
"Research continued mainly outside the US on a smaller scale, notably in Europe: a need for multiple translations in the European Union drove further research."
Since then there has been considerable university research and private investment and there are now "several products which do quite a good job", Wigg says.
Importantly it has become accepted that machine translation has its uses in various fields rather than being a universal solution to a universal problem, Wigg says.
"Translation is now used successfully for translating technical texts written in a controlled manner with a restricted syntax and a specialised vocabulary, such as maintenance manuals," he says. "Even so, machine translation is often used on uncontrolled normal texts just to get the gist of them."
Machine translation is also being increasingly used with dictionaries and thesauri in applications called translator workbenches. These provide specialised facilities for human translators, including access to online dictionaries, and they can include what is called translation memory, in which previous human translations are stored for automatic reuse.
The main aim of the BCS Natural Language Translation Specialist Group, formed in 1976, is to promote the automation of translation between languages with the goal of lowering linguistic barriers between nations.
It arranges talks, demonstrations and national and international conferences, and publishes information, among other activities. Information is published via the group's website and its Machine Translation Review, produced every December. A new project has been started to evaluate and promote the use of the free translation facilities available on the internet.
The specialist group is also interested in areas related to natural language processing, ranging from computer-assisted language learning to compiling multilingual dictionaries.
Membership of the Natural Language Translation Specialist Group is free, and members can join an e-mail list called firstname.lastname@example.org via www.jiscmail.ac.uk
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