Ida Rhodes on Automatic Translation of Languages

Below we present two short extracts from papers by Ida Rhodes on the Automatic Translation of Languages.

1. A New Approach to the Mechanical Syntactic Analysis of Russian.

Ida Rhodes published A New Approach to the Mechanical Syntactic Analysis of Russian in Mechanical Translation 6 (November 1961), 33-50. The article was received in 16 March 1959 and the author comments that, because of the long time between writing the paper and its publication, it no longer represents the author's latest treatment of the problem. We present the Abstract and part of the Introduction below:

1.1. Abstract.

This paper categorically rejects the possibility of considering a word-to-word conversion as a translation. A true translation is unattainable, even by the human agent, let alone by mechanical means. However, a crude practical translation is probably achievable. The present paper deals with a scheme for the syntactic integration of Russian sentences.

1.2. Introduction.

From the moment that a writer conceives an idea which he desires to communicate to his fellow men, sizable stumbling blocks are strewn in the path of the future translator. For the ability to shape one's thought clearly, or even completely, is not granted to many; rarer still is the gift of expressing the thought - precisely, concisely, unambiguously - in the form of words. There is no guarantee, therefore, that the author's written text is a reliable image of his original idea. Furnished with this more or less distorted record, the translator is expected to perform a number of amazing feats. In the first place, he has to discern - often through the dim mist of the source language - the writer's precise intention. This requires not only a perfect knowledge of both the source language and the subject matter treated in the text, but also the mental skills customarily exercised by the professional sleuth. In addition, these newly reconstructed ideas must be rendered into a target language which is so unequivocal and so faithful to the source - as to convey, to every reader of the translator's product, the exact meaning of the original foreign text! Small wonder, then, that a fabulous achievement like Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat is regarded in the nature of a miracle. For the general case, it would seem that characterizing a sample of the translator's art as a good translation is akin to characterizing a case of mayhem as a good crime: in both instances the adjective is incongruous. If, as a crowning handicap, we are asked to replace the vast capacity of the human brain by the paltry contents of an electronic contraption, the absurdity of aiming at anything higher than a crude practical translation becomes eminently patent. Perhaps we are belaboring this point; we do so to avoid later arguments about the "quality" of our work. If, for example, a translated article enables a scientist to reproduce an experiment described in a source paper and to obtain the same results, - such a translation may be regarded as a practical one. Perhaps the translation is not couched in elegant terms; here and there several alternative meanings are given for a target word; a word or two may appear as a mere transliteration of original source words. Nevertheless, this translation has served its main purpose: a scholar in one land can follow the work of his colleague in another. This limited scope has been set for us by our own as well as the machine's deficiencies. The heartbreaking problem which we face in mechanical translation is how to use the machine's considerable speed to overcome its lack of human cognizance. We do not yet really understand how the human mind associates ideas at its immense rate of speed; for example, how does it differentiate seemingly instantaneously between the two meanings of calculus in the following sentences: (1) The surgeon removed the staghorn calculus from the patient's kidney, and (2) The professor announced a new course in advanced calculus. And yet, a scheme for discerning such differences is what we must impart to the machine.

2. Syntactic Integration Carried Out Mechanically.

Ida Rhodes presented the paper Syntactic Integration Carried Out Mechanically at the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Automatic Translation of Languages, Venice, 15-31 July, 1962. On the paper her address is: National Bureau of Standards, Washington 25, D.C., U.S.A. To get a flavour of this paper, we present the start of her discussion:

The Unattainability of a Perfect Translation

It is easy to prove that a perfect translation from one language into another cannot be achieved. Faced with a set of occurrences in the source language, the translator must first use them as clues, to ascertain the purport which they were intended to express. From the very start of his task, the translator is beset by a huge number of obstacles, some of which we list below.

A. Morphological Ambiguities

For example, the English word 'book' has no less than seventeen grammatical interpretations in the source - namely,

1.       Noun Singular.
2-3.    Adjective, Singular or Plural.
4.       Verb Infinitive.
5-6.    Verb Imperative, Singular or Plural.
7-11.   Verb Present Indicative, 1st or 2nd Person Singular or All Persons Plural.
12-17. Verb Subjunctive, All Persons and Numbers.
B. Syntactic Ambiguities

For each grammatical interpretation, there exist, in general, a considerable number of possible functions which it can have in a sentence. For instance, an English noun can be, among other things, the

1.    Subject of a Clause.
2-3. Direct or Indirect Object of a Verb.
4.    Complement of a Preposition or Adjective.
5.    Appositive of an Expression.
C. Semantic Ambiguities

These are so formidable, as to be responsible for much of the misunderstanding, distrust, and suspicion which exist even among people speaking the same language. A partial list follows.

1.  Polysemia.
2.  Misconception.
3.  Obfuscation.
4.  Lapses in Grammar or Spelling.
5.  Localisms, such as patois, argots, slang.
Even if the translator were able to carry out this part of his assignment with a high degree of success, he is bound to flounder in the next phase, while attempting to convey the original intention by means of the target language.

JOC/EFR November 2017

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