Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Birthday Post (No. 363)

I don't usually write about myself on this blog, but today calls for an exception. It's my birthday, my 87th. I'm statistically and medically lucky to be alive. Average male life expectancy in Spain, where I live, is 79.6 years; and though I'm not completely well, I'm in much better health than I was a year ago. Physically I attribute it to my parents' genes, my wife's vegetarian cuisine and some good Spanish cardiologists. Mentally it may have something to do with racking my brains about translation every day.

It so happens that I also have some other anniversaries to celebrate. It's just 50 years almost to the day that I first saw and worked with a computer. In a sense it was a rebirth. It happened in the summer of 1966. The computer was a new CDC 6400 at the Université de Montréal(see photo), where research on machine translation had recently started. It was a fast machine for its time, but it filled a space as large as a lecture hall though it was less powerful than my present-day laptop. Its input was on punched cards and its output on a line printer. No terminals.

Therefore it's just 50 years since I first became involved in machine translation and its concomitant corpus linguistics. We had received a corpus of English from Brown University on large spools of magnetic tape, and my first task was to scan a KWIC concordance of it for usage of English prepositions. But I didn't really know anything about computers, and a few months later I was humbled at a meeting of leading MT researchers in Ottawa. I scuttled back to Montreal to learn a little programming and Boolean logic.

And skipping a busy decade, it's 40 years since, as secretary of the 1976 COLING conference in Montreal, I was coopted to the International Committee on Computational Linguistics, of which I still am a member.

As well, in a different compartment of my career, conference interpreting, it's just 40 years since I interpreted for Lord Killanin (the IOC president) and Princess Anne of England as one of the team of interpreters at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. (For the princess it was at the equestrian events in Bromont, Quebec, and in my off time I saw Nadia Comaneci make her perfect score of 10 at the Montreal Forum)

And finally, for this post anyway, in another and more enduring compartment of my career, I was working 40 years ago with my assistant, Bianca Sherwood on the data for our joint paper Translating as an Innate Skill. I gave it the following year to the historic NATO Symposium on Language Interpretation and Communication held on San Giorgio Maggiori Island in Venice in the presence of such legendary luminaries as Jean Herbert, Wallace Lambert, Danica Seleskovitch, Patricia Longley, Barbara Moser and many more. I'd already given its forerunner, The Importance of Natural Translation, at the AILA World Congress in Stuttgart the previous year.

That's all for this post. More next year, I dare hope.

To all who helped me, my heartfelt thanks.

A Control Data Corporation 6400 installation circa 1966. The central processing unit is in the background, the magnetic tape memory units are on the right. It's probably the card reader in the foreground.
Source: CERN.

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