Translation technology has come a long way since hand-copying things word-by-word. How we got from there to here is an adventure, to say the least.
It’s easy to take translation for granted. However, it wasn’t always as easy as popping your sentence into Google Translate and having it returned in the language of your choice.
For the vast majority of human history, languages were limited to localities, and spoken amongst communities that remained mostly isolated.
With time, these communities would develop into cities and civilizations with which we’re more familiar. These civilizations also empowered the evolution of distinct cultures, religions, and stories.
Nothing motivates change like a good story and this is where we find one of the first applications of this newfound skill of translation…
Translation “Tech” Past
The Epic of Gilgamesh; a true Sumerian page (err, stone tablet?) turner from around 2,000 B.C. Originally written in the Sumerian language, the story was translated to Akkadian, a Babylonian language that was eventually supplanted by Arabic.
Imagine being the first translator of such a text. Imagine being the first person to deliver the gift of a previously inaccessible story to a whole new society. Pretty wild, right?
Well, that’s where the journey to Alexa translating the Spanish verses of Justin Beiber’s Despacito began.
It was hard work. Hand copying and translating written materials, to say nothing of the work needed to decode meaning in the first place, was what translation remained for a very long time.
In ancient Greece, the distinction arose between metaphrase — literal translation between languages — and paraphrase; or sense-to-sense translation.
Then, a brilliant 9th-century cryptographer named Al-Kindi developed a whole bunch of techniques for systemic language translation. A genius far before his time, his techniques included cryptanalysis, frequency analysis, probabilities, and statistics, which are still used today, though integrated into translation algorithms.
Jousting with Jargon: A cryptographer is someone who uses codes and ciphers to conceal or reveal messages. Yes, like secret codes. They’re proficient in writing hidden messages and cracking encoded ones. Cryptographers have nothing to do with ancient burial chambers.
Then came one of the most seismic events in human history: Ye olde printing press. Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg, if you had the resources (read: money) to have access to a printing press, translating was done once, they could be reproduced as many times as you needed. This was in the 1450s. An interesting side note is that no one’s really sure when the first printing press was invented, only that Gutenberg nailed the invention and made commercially printed publication possible with the Gutenberg Press.
The advent of the printing press fundamentally shifted the relationship between humans, technology, and the dissemination of ideas or, to coin it modernly, content.
Translation Tech Present
Fast forward 500ish years to the advent of Machine Translation (MT) in 1949. Warren Weaver, an American scientist and mathematician, wrote his memorandum plainly titled Translation. From this publication, he became known as one of the first pioneers of MT.
Guess where Mr. Weaver got the idea from? Alan Turing and his team’s WWII work on breaking the Germans’ Enigma Code.
Through Weaver’s Turing-inspired-memo, funding and research in the field of MT began to increase, but significant achievements remained few and far between.
This brings us a couple of decades forward, to the early 1970s, when The French Textile Institute used MT to translate abstracts to and from French, German, English, and Spanish. At the same time, Brigham Young University began a project that translated Mormon texts via automated translation technology.
Everything was a little quiet for a bit, then interest began to resurge as computers became more widely available in the late 1980s. This changed everything in MT, but most MT companies agree that SYSTRAN was the first major Machine Translation player on the scene.
In the 1990s, SYSTRAN and Altavista Babelfish finally took MT online. Shortly thereafter, Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) programs consolidated MT with human verification, bringing us to the basic versions of modern CAT tools.
Translation Tech Into The Future
Of course, now, CAT tools include a variety of helpful functionalities like:
- Translation Memory
- Advanced Search
- Project Management Software
Despite these advances, translation remains a content pain point for organizations across the world. While technology advances have been dramatic, the evolution of translation technology has occurred largely apart from other aspects of content development. As comparatively easy as it is now versus hundreds of years ago, many organizations still shy away from translating their content, citing cost, difficulty, and logistics as their reasoning.
So what’s next? How do we bridge this gap between content creation and content translation to make the process more seamless? It starts with the initial preparation of the content. In order to maximize the advantages of translation, it needs to be appropriately structured from the beginning.
This is where easyDITA comes into play. With easyDITA, content is created in a structured manner that is optimized for seamless, affordable translation.