Brian Harris, review of Alexander Lyudskanov’s book in Italian on unprofessionaltranslation

Ludskanov in Italian


Alexander Ludskanov and Natural Translation
The fundamental tenet of the Natural Translation (NT) Hypothesis is that all bilinguals can translate. The first person to state that explicitly was the brilliant Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov (A.L.) in 1967. He did it in a book in Bulgarian; the literal translation of its title would be Human and Machine Translation. He translated the book into French himself in 1969, and what he wrote was this:
Grâce à une certaine intuition et à une certaine habitude, chaque sujet bilingue traduit d’une manière ou d’une autre. Par conséquent, la science de la TO [traduction humaine] n’avait pas à s’occuper de la question comment apprendre à l’homme à traduire, mais de la question comment lui apprendre à agir d’une manière ou d’une autre pour obtenir des résultats correspondant à certains critères acceptés a priori.
Here’s my English translation:
By intuition and habit, all bilingual people can translate in some way or other. Consequently the fundamental question for the study of human translation is not how to teach people to translate, but how to teach them to behave in a way that will produce results conforming to certain well-established, accepted criteria.
He couldn’t have said it better; but does that mean he was an early proponent of research on NT? Not at all. First, if you re-read his second sentence, you’ll see that what he recommends is not the study of the spontaneous phenomenon, but of how natural translators can be trained to translate according to the norms of their society. Secondly, the passage I’ve quoted only occurs in a footnote. He certainly knew what he was saying, but the fact that he didn’t put it in the body of his text means, IMHO, that like several other early discoverers of NT, he didn’t appreciate its full significance.

Never mind. He clearly saw that NT exists and that it’s universal.

A.L. impressed everyone who heard him lecture by the convincing clarity of his arguments – his first degree was in law. Alas, he died in 1976 at only fifty. My wife and I knew him and his family personally, and their little old-world house in Sofia. It was thanks to him that we and his other friends of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics were able to slip behind the Iron Curtain and visit Bulgaria (Sofia, Varna, the Black Sea coast) in those far-off days of the Communist regime. We were surprised by the high level of translation activities and of intellectual life in what most people in the West thought of as a Balkan backwater. This was partly due to the Bulgarians’ proximity to the linguists and scientists of the Soviet Union: A.L. himself had studied in Moscow. The Bulgarian government aped the Soviets, and A.L. received official support for his machine translation project because MT research was in vogue in the USSR. He was no supporter of the regime, but he’d managed to find a refuge in the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Science because, as he explained to me, “Mathematics is the only branch of learning that they haven’t found a way to politicize.”

There are a number of other interesting ideas in his book, but they aren’t directly relevant to this blog. What does it mean, however, to say that he was a semiotician? Semoticians study all kinds of sign systems (N.B. not just signs, but systems of signs). For them, languages are one kind of sign system, and there are others just as important. What would be such another? The genetic code, for example. For semioticians, therefore, a language translation is a conversion (or a series of conversions) of information-bearing signs, just as the transformation of DNA into RNA into protein is. (In this connection, see my July 25 post.) Semioticians think, as A.L. would have put it, “at a higher level of abstraction” than linguists.

To be continued.


Ludskanov, Ljudskanov, etc.: These are just variant transliterations of his Bulgarian name. Likewise Alexander, Alexandre, Aleksandar.

Aleksander L’udskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Sofia: Nauka i Izkustvo, 1967. 159 p. Published version of his doctoral thesis of 1964.

Alexandre Ljudskanov. Traduction humaine et traduction mécanique(Documents de linguistique quantitative 2 and 4). French translation by A.L. himself, Paris, Dunod, 1969, 2 fascicles.

The website of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics is at

There’s an article in Wikipedia on the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.


Ludskanov in Italian
This post is a continuation of the preceding one. Please read the other one first.

After A.L.’s death in 1976, his book on translation theory fell into oblivion except in Bulgaria, where it was republished and his memory was kept alive by his student and assistant Elena Paskaleva; and in Leipzig, where he’d been lecturing and the German translation was a textbook. There were several reasons for the neglect:

1. There was no English translation. Contrary to what some people might think, translation studies specialists are as dependent on translations as other people.

2. There was an excellent German translation, but it was made and published in East Germany when Europe was still divided. The French translation was in A.L.’s own imperfect French – and you know how picky the French are about their language; furthermore it was execrably printed. Even in intellectual spheres, appearances do count.

3. As time wore on, the parts of the book that had to do with computing went further and further out of date. A.L. foresaw this, and told me that future translators would have to update it. And then, around 1990, research on machine translation took a whole new direction.

4. Interest in the connections between translation and semiotics became focussed on literary and cultural semiotics, which were not A.L.‘s interest.

But now A.L.’s book and its ideas have been given new life. After the long neglect, an Italian translation has unexpectedly appeared. It was done from the French version by a team, and edited by Bruno Osimo, an enterprising and discerning teacher of translation and translation theory at the University of Milan and elsewhere in Italy (more about him at

He’s dealt with the problem of updating the computer science parts of the book by the simplest and most drastic method possible: he’s cut most of them out. As he says himself:
This is not a complete and unabridged translation of the 1967 work, which had 160 pages. Some chapters that were all about machine translation have been left out entirely… The other chapters have undergone editing so as to remove the technicalities of the most ’cybernetic’ aspects of the book; they would not mean much today to people who are interested in translation. [Cybernetic, in A.L.’s usage, conformed to the East European concept that computer science was a branch of cybernetics.] Altogether, the text has been reduced by about two fifths.
Compared with the revised Bulgarian edition and the German translation, the reduction is even more drastic. In the same spirit of reader-oriented translation,
The original Bulgarian contained a great many [quasi-mathematical] symbols and formulae. Here such abbreviations, etc., have been eliminated in order to make the text more readable.
Gone too are the many footnotes, and with them the passage about ‘intuitive’ translators that I cited at the beginning of the preceding post.

Never mind. The essential Ludskanov is there. It’s good to see the book in print again and made available to another generation. Perhaps somebody will be guided by Osimo’s editing to finally produce an English version.

The book is nicely printed, and at 10 euros it’s a bargain.

To be concluded.

References (see also the preceding post)

Aleksandar Lûdskanov. Un approccio semiotico alla traduzione. Dalla prospettiva informatica alla scienza traduttiva. Italian translation by Vanessa Albertocchi, Gaia d’Alò, Emilia de Candia, Francesca Picerno, Luca Revelant, Valeria Sanguinetti, Elisa Scarmagnani and Maura Zampieri from the French translation. Edited by Bruno Osimo. Milan: Hoepli, 2008. xix, 76 p.

Aleksander Lyudskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Revised and expanded edition, edited by Elena Paskaleva, with a preface by the eminent Bulgarian linguist Miroslav Yanakiev. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980.

Elena Paskaleva. Alexander Ljudskanov. In W. J. Hutchins (ed.), Early Years in Machine Translation: Memoirs and Biographies of Pioneers, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2000. pp. 361-376. For fast reading, go to, although there are a few pages missing.

Alexander Ljudskanov. Mensch und Maschine als Übersetzer. German translation by Gert Jäger and Hilmar Walter of the Karl-Marx University, Leipzig, from a greatly expanded source text. Halle: Niemeyer, 1972 / Munich: Hueber, 1973. 260 p. A.L. much preferred this translation to his own French one.

There’s also a Polish translation. Osimo says he couldn’t trace it, but it’s in the catalogue of the National Library of Poland.


L’informazione traduttiva necessaria

This post is the conclusion of the two preceding ones, which should be read first.

One of the sections of Alexander Ludskanov’s magnum opus that Bruno Osimo has preserved in his Italian recension is, fortunately, 3.2.1 L’informazione traduttiva necessaria (The Information Needed for Translating). It was the subject of my last discussion with A.L. in Ottawa not long before he died.

I dwell on it here because it’s a matter that’s fundamental to all translating, whether machine, expert or natural. Only a layman thinks that a good knowledge of the two languages involved is enough information. For example, even if you know the verbs, the pronouns, the sentence forms, you can’t even translate appropriately such a simple message as “How are you?” into French, Spanish, etc., without also being informed what the social relationship is between the speaker and the hearer: Comment allez-vous? or Comment vas-tu? The term A.L. uses for such information is extralinguistic.

A.L. was acutely aware that the acquisition and incorporation of extralinguistic information presented a major problem for machine translation (MT). A few years before, in 1962, the Israeli logician and linguist Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (see photo), who was engaged in machine translation research at MIT, had declared it to be an insurmountable obstacle to the realization of what he called Fully Automatic High Quality Machine Translation. His pessimism put a damper on MT research in the United States. One of his examples was the apparently simple phrase slow neutrons and protons. In order to translate it correctly into languages that require agreement between nouns and their adjectives, it must be parsed either as (slow neutrons) + protons or as slow (neutrons + protons). But the choice between them depends on prior knowledge of, or newly acquired information about, nuclear physics. To A.L., as a semiotician, the extralinguistic information did not come directly from the world outside the translator (the ‘real world’) but from what was coded in other sign systems in the translator’s mind.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary, for the translation of a given text, that the translator possess, or have access to, the whole vast ocean of human knowledge. Each translation requires only a few drops from the ocean, and that, perhaps, might be acquirable and could be processed by a computer. Generally speaking, the more narrowly specialized the source text is, the less of the ocean is needed. But how to determine and specify precisely what information is required? That’s what we saw as the primary problem of l’informazione traduttiva necessaria.

Reference (see also the two preceding posts)

Yehosua Bar-Hillel (1915-1975). The future of Machine Translation. Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 1962. Bar-Hillel called extralinguistic information encyclopedic information. He later recanted in part and admitted that perhaps MT didn’t need to be High Quality or Fully Automatic. There’s an article on him in Wikipedia, which also tells us that his granddaughter, Gili Bar-Hillel, is the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter series.

Photo: Wikipedia

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