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Forty Years of Development in the Blink of an Eye

André Guyon
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 3, 2008, page 38)

What’s been going on for the past 40 years on the language technology front? It’s hard to sum it all up in just a few lines! Nevertheless, below are the major milestones, with chronological markers, of what has been a truly epic journey:

1968CETADOL (CEntre de Traitement Automatique des DOnnées Linguistiques) is already in existence, a precursor to TAUM-METEO and TAUM-AVIATION.

1972AES launches the AES-90 word processor, which becomes wildly popular.

1974PDL (Page Description Language) — the beginnings of desktop publishing.

1976 — Use of the Wang office information system spreads to major organizations.1 TAUM translates weather forecasts.

TERMIUM (terminology + Université de Montréal) arrives.

1978 — WordStar wins over computer owners. The Xerox PARC Alto (Mac ancestor) features a spellchecker.

1980 — Trade journals and microcomputer models are multiplying like bunnies. METEO on microcomputers arrives at the Translation Bureau.2 Grammatik corrects spelling and "checks" style in English-language texts.

1984 — Macintosh makes a big splash! The Apple machine is sold by "missionaries."3 The Xerox PARC technology will forever be associated with Apple.

Black text on a white background, mice and a menu system common to all applications are now all the rage. The next step is software integration (the ability to cut and paste between products from different suppliers).4

Mac software is translated by editing the text independently of the code. These are the beginnings of modern software localization.

TRADOS is founded, and its terminology management and translation memory software is integrated with Word and WordPerfect.

1985 — At least three different brands of word processing software are being produced in Quebec,5 but consolidation is on the way.

The hard drive (generally 10 Mb) puts an end to the hassle of changing floppy disks. The average cost of a hard drive is $1,500.

24-pin printers, producing near letter quality, provide the luxury of creating accented uppercase letters.6

1987 — Microcomputers take offices by storm. The Translation Bureau looks to the future by testing the LOGOS machine translation system7 on Wang, creating a working group to come up with the TWS (translator’s work station), using optical character recognition for word counts, etc.

1990 — Microsoft Windows 3 is installed, and we learn to live with the daily computer crashes. French-language grammar checkers are introduced. Viruses spread, particularly through infected diskettes.8 The word stoned gains a new meaning ("this computer is stoned").

1992 — Budgets for machine translation research are cut. Researchers turn to writing tools, bilingual concordancers such as TransSearch, translation memories, alignment tools and voice recognition.

Language professionals are already venturing onto the Internet. Office suites feature text correction software.

1994-1995 — Dial-up Internet access becomes widespread. It takes five to ten tries to connect, the connection time is limited, and the whole thing crashes when someone tries to call you on the telephone, but it is nevertheless extremely addictive.

Web pages that will become portals are already in existence.

The new Windows (1995) is launched with a new set of promises, which will not be kept.

At the Translation Bureau, Termicom allows translators to record terminology easily as required.

TRADOS boasts 10,000 licences sold.

The chief TERMIUM® programmer is already dreaming of putting his software on the Web. Among the legions of new Internet addicts, he can already see the advantages of this technology.

TransSearch gets good reviews following testing at the Translation Bureau. The tool is still commercially available by subscription.9

The second wave of grammar correction software (Correcteur 101, Antidote) wins over Francophones.

1998 — Most texts are now sent by Internet.

Huge fortunes are made by people who predict that the millennium bug will make the Earth stand still. Billions of dollars are spent to upgrade hardware and software in order to avoid theoretical consequences.

The pace then continues to pick up. Windows 2000 is almost stable, and XP (2002) will be slightly more so, despite the initial bad reviews.

Bitext-based translation memories, such as Terminotix’s LogiTerm, MultiCorpora’s MultiTrans and JiveFusion’s Fusion, are very well received.

Software or parts of language suites now offer more automated term extraction for terms contained in bitexts. The software suggests a list, which the professional can accept or refuse.

Language professionals use the Web as their main resource. They also learn to write and translate HTML content. Communication is on the rise, and language professionals are busier than ever.

Google goes from most popular search engine to monster company, offering everything for free (route planning, e-mail, office automation, space for photo albums, even machine translation).

2004 — Voice recognition becomes usable. A clever adaptation leads to quasi-real-time captioning of Question Period in the House of Commons. A "professional reader" dictates the captions to the software.10

With Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies, mobile computing enables users to connect to the Internet from cafés, trains and planes.

The BlackBerry, a combination handheld computer and cell phone, lets users flaunt their social status by thumb-typing an e-mail during an important meeting and remotely update electronic organizers.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow remote access to local network resources.

2007 — Machine translation has recently seen some spectacular progress thanks to statistical techniques and the volume of texts available on the Internet. New engines are delivering increasingly comprehensible, albeit somewhat annoying, texts that the general public can actually use.

There you have it! I would have loved to go on for pages more to tell you everything. Please forgive the omissions and questionable approximations!

  • Back to the note1 The Wang system was a minicomputer with terminals, not a microcomputer.
  • Back to the note2 This system designed by John Chandioux will long be considered the greatest MT success in the world.
  • Back to the note3 Apple previously experienced a spectacular failure with the Lisa personal computer.
  • Back to the note4 No, that was not always possible. Copying and pasting could only be done within the same software or suite.
  • Back to the note5 Le Rédacteur, Éditexte and Traitex.
  • Back to the note6 I created some in 1987 with my colleague Roger Racine.
  • Back to the note7 The LOGOS system test on Wang would be very disappointing.
  • Back to the note8 At the time, computers booted first from the floppy disk drive.
  • Back to the note9 Offered by Terminotix.
  • Back to the note10 No software can precisely capture the words of several people speaking at once or speaking in an environment with too much ambient noise.