Friday, November 29, 2013

SYSTRAN: A Brief History of Machine Translation

When we last looked at the history of machine translation (MT), we covered the ALPAC report and prior to that, the Georgetown-IBM experiment. Today we're looking at SYSTRAN, one of the oldest technologies in MT.

SYSTRAN traces its origins back to the Georgetown-IBM experiment, and in 1968, the company was founded by Dr. Peter Toma. Despite the lack of funding available to MT research following the ALPAC report, SYSTRAN survived and would work closely with the US Department of Defense.

In 1969, SYSTRAN was contracted by the US Air Force (USAF) in order to provide MT for them. During the Cold War, as per usual, US military branches were very interested in what the Russians were up to. Translations were from Russian to English and covered various domains, while the USAF was particularly interested in scientific and technical documents.

If you have used MT before, you will know that the quality tends to lag far behind that of human translators. The same could be said for the translations provided by SYSTRAN during the Cold War. Despite the quality of the translations, they were generally understood by those using them.

A barbel fish, not to be confused with BabelFish.
SYSTRAN was contracted to work for the Commission of European Communities (CEC) in 1975. Work began on a new system in 1976 operating from English to French. The system for French to English arrived the following year, and a third language combination was provided in 1979.

By 1981, the CEC was using SYSTRAN on an experimental basis for English-French, French-English, and English-Italian. At the time, French translators did not show the same zeal towards the systems as those translating between English and Italian. In 1982, 293 pages were translated from English to Italian with the assistance of SYSTRAN and 330 pages were translated from French to English. That said, these numbers equated to 50% of the Italian workload and only 25% of the French workload.

SYSTRAN had also provided services for Xerox as of 1978 and had been shown to increase productivity, though in-house translators still expected a higher degree of quality than that of the MT provided. English was translated into six target languages for Xerox, and SYSTRAN reported that they were satisfied with the results.

Xerox staff were encouraged by SYSTRAN to change the way they worked in order to maximise the efficiency of their products, whereas the CEC did not report as much productivity as Xerox. The USAF was also still using SYSTRAN and incorporating the newer language pairings as they became available.

In 1995, SYSTRAN released SYSTRAN PRO on Windows, and by 1997, search engine AltaVista's BabelFish, powered by SYSTRAN, was providing real-time translations on the internet. For many years SYSTRAN provided rule-based MT and helped power Google's language tools until 2007 and the translation widget in Mac OS X, among other things.

SYSTRAN also provided MT combining rule-based translation and statistical machine translation in 2010, one of the first products on the marketplace to do so. Though SYSTRAN is still a distance from the levels attained by human translators, the research conducted throughout the decades could be argued to have helped MT to survive until now.