In the Cold War, computers were trying (and
failing) to translate between Russian and English. Now I explored the American side
of that frustrating early history of Machine Translation, but, uh, what were the Russians
doing? Welcome to CompChomp, the only show on the
internets where we like our sugars natural and our languages artificial.
I did a collaboration with NativLang and we met all the major players in the early computer
translation boom in the US: the perfectionists, who were like, rules! Teach computers how
language works! And the brute forcers who said, no, data! Then let computers figure
it out on their own! Meanwhile, the Russians were busy making things
even more complicated. Stupid American. Simplify everything.
Stalinist Russia had been standing in the shadow of a technology ban. Teach good theory.
Use good tech. But with Stalin’s death in 1953 and news of that successful tech demo
in 1954, Russians got in on the translation game.
The Americans were mainly using a direct translation approach: you take a source language and figure
out how to rewrite its words into a target language. Lazy Americans.
This was too simple for Russia! Translating between two languages? Haha! Why not three
at once!? Alright, that’s the last time I use my bad
Russian accent. I swear. Leningrad University’s Andreev built up a
middle language that sits between the source and target pairs. This inbetween language
(“interlingua” in Latin, now who’s smart?) had features common to many languages. This
interlingua was a real made-up language. A real made-up language… oxymoron much?
What I mean is that it was really, really made up, like it had its own sentence structure
and its own word grammar. Now, I’ve been giving Russia a hard time here,
but using a third language was not such a bad idea. When you pick a language pair to
translate between on your favorite web translator, it’s actually using an intermediate pivot
language: English! In telling the tale of the birth of early
Machine Translation to its death in that cold AI winter, I wanted Russia to have its moment
of glory. Because they were doing some cool translation work, too, and we didn’t have
a chance to cover that in the other video. Let’s be honest, you cannot talk Cold Wars
and winters and not mention what’s going on down in Russia. Over in Russia. Up in… well,
that’s going to depend on where you are. Chomp!