The best known event in the history of machine translation is without doubt the publication in November 1966 of the report by the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee (ALPAC 1966). Its effect was to bring to an end the substantial funding of MT research in the United States for some twenty years. More significantly, perhaps, was the clear message to the general public and the rest of the scientific community that MT was hopeless. To this day, the ‘failure’ of MT is still repeated by many as an indisputable fact. The impact of ALPAC has been undeniable.

The first half of the report investigated the translation needs of US scientists and government officials and overall demand and supply of translations from Russian into English. ALPAC began by asking whether, with the overwhelming predominance of English as the language of scientific literature, it might be simpler and more economical for heavy users of Russian translations to learn to read the documents in the original language; this could be achieved in 200 hours or less, and an increasing fraction of American scientists and engineers had such a knowledge. Next, it established that only some 20 to 30% of Russian articles in some fields would have been accepted for publication in American journals. So there was no emergency in the field of translation. There were, however, several crucial problems of translation. These concerned quality, speed, and cost. Quality must be appropriate for the needs of requesters, since flawless and polished translation for a user-limited readership was wasteful of both time and money. On speed, ALPAC saw much room for improvement: the most rapid service (from JPRS) was 15 days for 50 pages; documents sent to outside contractors by the US Foreign Technology Division were taking a minimum of 65 days; and when processed by the FTD’s MT system, they were taking 109 days (caused by processes of post-editing and production). On cost, ALPAC considered what government agencies were paying to human translators and this varied from $9 to $66 per 1000 words. Calculations were made of cost per reader of the different forms of translation, including unedited output from the FTD system. These costs included the expenditure of time by readers. Assuming that the average reader took twice as long to read unedited MT documents as good quality human translation, it concluded that if documents are to be read by more than 20 person, traditional human translation was cheaper than MT.

Then, the report turned to the present state of machine translation. It began with a definition: MT “presumably means going by algorithm from machine-readable source text to useful target text, without recourse to human translation or editing and in this context, there has been no machine translation of general scientific text, and none is in immediate prospect“. The alternative it saw was post-edited MT. However, it admitted that it could not “assess the difficulty and cost of post-editing“.

In some respects, the impact of ALPAC can be exaggerated. MT research in the US did not come to a complete and sudden halt in 1966. Some projects continued, notably at Wayne State University under Harry Josselson until 1972, and at the University of Texas under Winfred Lehmann and Rolf Stachowitz until 1975.

Furthermore, in hindsight it can, of course, be agreed that ALPAC was quite right to be sceptical about MT because the quality was undoubtedly poor, and did not appear to justify the level of financial support it had been receiving. It was also correct to identify the need to develop machine aids for translators, and to emphasise the need for more basic research in computational linguistics. However, it can be faulted for concentrating too exclusively on the translation needs of US scientists and of US agencies and not recognizing the broader needs of commerce and industry in an already expanding global economy. Secondly, the report concentrated exclusively on US government and military needs in the analysis and scanning of Russian-language documents. It was not concerned in any way with other potential uses or users of MT systems or with any other languages.

In the chapter on “Automatic language processing and computational linguistics” there is a consideration of the contribution of MT research to advances of NLP in general. Its effect on computer hardware had been insignificant; it had contributed to advances in computer software, but that by far, the most important outcome has been its effect on linguistics. Here they highlighted insights into syntax and formal grammar, the bringing of subtler theories into confrontation with richer bodies of data, and concluding that although “the revolution in linguistics has not been solely the result of attempts at machine translation and parsing, it is unlikely that the revolution would have been extensive or significant without these attempts“.

However, despite this favourable influence, ALPAC underlined once more that “we do not have useful machine translation and there is no immediate or predictable prospect of useful machine translation”. It repeated the potential opportunities to improve translation quality, particularly in various machine aids: “Machine-aided translation may be an important avenue toward better, quicker, and cheaper translation“. But ALPAC did not recommend basic research: “What machine-aided translation needs most is good engineering“. ALPAC recommended that research should be supported on means for speeding up the human translation process, the evaluation of the speed and costs of various sorts of machine-aided translation, the adaptation of existing mechanized editing and production processes in translation.

For further information about the ALPAC report, please click here.



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