Ada Lovelace Day: Barbara Snell (by )

For Ada Lovelace Day I'm going to write about my aunt Barbara.

She's never been one to be arbitrarily limited by society - in the 1950s, she went and toured the world on her own; which was quite something for a woman in her early 20s to do!

She's retired now, but her career was in linguistics. In particular, she was a technical translator, translating equipment manuals from other languages to English; I've never obtained a full list of the languages she knows, but (from memory) all the main European languages, Russian, and Japanese have been mentioned.

Anyway, she happened to be working for Xerox when the job of translating some documentation relating to the Xerox Star came across her desk.

At the time, translators worked with typewriters; they'd type up a first draft of the translation, with lots of corrections pencilled in as they went along, as it's quite common to find you want to revise something you've already translated when you come to write a later paragraph. They would then have to type up a better copy incorporating the corrections; but this might then come back with amendments proposed by the marketing department or other stakeholders. So the translators spent a lot of time doing menial work.

So imagine Barbara's excitement when she read the manuals for an electronic word processor... So, never one to let convention stand in her way, she petitioned the management to let the translation department have some. This request was eventually fulfilled, and as she predicted, translation became a lot more efficient...

But Barbara continued to be vocal about the opportunities for computers to help with translation, driving developments within the company and starting a series of conferences on the use of computers in translation, which is perhaps why Xerox is considered "is the private company that has contributed the most to the expansion of machine translation"ref.

This was all about when I was being born, of course. But when, around 2000, Barbara retired and closed down her own translation business, I had the chance to take my pick of computer equipment as she was clearing out the office; I took away a 486 that became the home router - but I always wished I'd managed to claim her Xerox Star...

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