mardi 10 avril 2018

Exclusive: Federico Pucci. The overlooked pioneer of machine translation

Federico Pucci
The overlooked pioneer of machine translation

French version

This is the title of the book that Federico Pucci’s granddaughter and I have decided to write. Below is its preface:

If you do a Google search for traduction automatique, more than 2.5 million results come up. A similar number are retrieved for traduzione automatica, while a search for machine translation, gets 11.5 million results. And so on for all other languages. Figures that are bound to grow in years to come.

There has never been more interest in machine translation (MT) than there is now. With neural machine translation, making use of artificial intelligence, coming into the picture, this field is heading towards another revolution. The second big (r)evolution in less than 20 years, after the first wave brought in by Google in the « Noughties ».

One of the biggest authorities in the history of machine translation is John Hutchins, whose article « Machine Translation: History », published in 2006 in the Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition (Elsevier), begins with the chapter « Precursors and Pioneers, 1933–1954. It starts like this(1):
Although we might trace the origins of ideas related to machine translation (MT) to 17th-century speculations about universal languages and mechanical dictionaries, it was not until the 20th century that the first practical suggestions could be made, in 1933 with two patents issued in France and Russia to Georges Artsrouni and Petr Trojanskij, respectively. Artsrouni’s patent was for a general-purpose machine that could also function as a mechanical multilingual dictionary. Trojanskij’s patent, also basically for a mechanical dictionary, went further with detailed proposals for coding and interpreting grammatical functions using ‘universal’ (Esperanto-based) symbols in a multilingual translation device. 
This clearly posits that the precursors or pioneers of MT were Georges Artsrouni and Petr Trojanskij, with the year 1933 firmly fixed. This view is unanimously shared, and as far as I am aware has never been challenged by anyone.

Earlier documents, however, also penned by John Hutchins, mention on two occasions a certain Federico Pucci, from Salerno. The first time in 1997, in a document entitled « First Steps In Mechanical Translation » (2):
In August 1949, the New York Times reported from Salerno that an Italian named Federico Pucci, had invented a machine to translate, saying that it would be exhibited at a Paris Fair; but no more was to be heard of it. 
Then in a 2005 update(3):
On 26 August 1949, the New York Times reported (page 9) from Salerno:  Federico Pucci announced today that he had invented a machine that could translate copy from any language into any other language. He said that the machine was electrically operated, but refused to disclose details. He said that he would enter it in the Paris International Fair of Inventions next month.   
It is uncertain whether Pucci had any knowledge of Huskey’s proposals, and it seems most unlikely he knew about Weaver's memorandum or the British experiments. In any event, there is no trace of any demonstration at the Paris fair; and nothing more is known about Pucci 
Just a dozen or so lines in all, but the starting point that will lead to an amazing discovery, not to mention a great human adventure. The story of Federico Pucci, about whom nothing at all was known save for these few words. I had an irresistible urge to find out more…

He has the merit and the honour of having published the world’s first text on the “mechanical translator” written in modern times, back in 1931 (year IX of the fascist era!):

As far as we know, he wrote a total of 10 books in 30 years (French post) explaining the ideas behind his invention, totally unknown today.

Writing this preface, a little over a year after having written my first blog post on this wonderful story, entitled « Machine translation: SCOOP on the dynamo-mechanical translator! », I realise that the intense road already travelled is shorter than that still to be traversed, before Federico Pucci’s role as a pioneer in the history of machine translation is universally recognised, and before a University, or one of the world’s biggest MT players, decides to take up his studies and ideas and finally build a working prototype of his translating machine…

Salerno, Easter 2018


(1) Hutchins J (2006), Machine Translation: History. In: Keith Brown, (Editor-in-Chief) Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition, volume 7, pp. 375-383. Oxford: Elsevier.
John Hutchins
(University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK)
(3) [Corrected version (2005) of paper in: Machine Translation, vol.12 no.3, 1997, p.195-252]
From first conception to first demonstration: the nascent years of machine translation, 1947-1954
A chronology
John Hutchins

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Previous posts :


4. Il traduttore [elettro]-meccanico secondo Federico Pucci (17/06/2017)
3. Exclusivité : les inventions de Federico Pucci dans la traduction automatique (24/03/2017)
2. Histoire actualisée de la traduction automatique (17/03/2017)
1. Traduction automatique : une découverte extraordinaire (16/03/2017)

Translation 2.0:

7. Federico Pucci, linguiste émérite, inventeur et précurseur de la traduction automatique (27/07/2017)
6. Le traducteur [électro]-mécanique selon Federico Pucci (16/06/2017)
5. Exclusivité : Federico Pucci, inventeur du premier "traducteur mécanique" des temps modernes (02/04/2017)
4. Premier texte au monde sur la traduction automatique (15/03/2017)
3. Federico Pucci, pioniere della traduzione automatica (13/03/2017)
2. Federico Pucci : LE précurseur de la traduction automatique (13/03/2017)
1. Traduction automatique : SCOOP sur le traducteur dynamo-mécanique ! (12/03/2017)

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P.S. Federico Pucci, a clever and knowledgeable man according to his daughter, was born in Naples on 23 March 1896. He died in Salerno on 6 March 1973 just before reaching the age of 77.

He is the grandson, through his mother, of Francesco Benzo, Duke of Verdura, formerly intendant of Basilicata, then praetor and intendant of Palermo from 1849 to 1858, nobleman of the court of King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, and also polyglot and interpreter for the King.

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