How Canada Accidentally Helped Crack Computer Translation

A technological whodunit—featuring Parliament, computer scientists, and a tipsy plane flight

Arun sent me a link to a neat story about How Canada Accidentally Helped Crack Computer Translation. The story is by Christine Mitchell and is in the Walrus (June 2023). It describes how IBM got ahold of a magnetic reel tape with 14 years of the Hansard – the translated transcripts of the Canadian Parliament. IBM went on to use this data trove to make advances in automatic translation.

The story mentions the politics of automated translation research in Canada. I have previously blogged about the Booths who were recruited by the NRC to Saskatchewan to work on automated translation. They were apparently pursuing a statistical approach like that IBM took later on, but their funding was cut.

Speaking of automatic translation, Canada had a computerized system, METEO for translating daily weather forecasts from Environment Canada. This ran from 1981 to 2001 and was an early successful implementation of automatic translation in the real world. It came out of work at the TAUM (Traduction Automatique à l’Université de Montréal) research group at the Université de Montréal that was set up in the late 1960s.