Can We Translate English To English?
Can an automatic system improve our writing
Mary-Claire van Leunen is not a mathematician nor a complexity theorist. She is the author of a great book on technical writing called Handbook For Scholars. The book was used in a course at Stanford run by Don Knuth at one time. Even though she is not a theorist she does have a publication in SIGACT NEWS—see this. I have mentioned her before here.
Today I want to talk about writing, and how technology might be able to make it better.
When I arrived at Yale in 1973, Mary-Claire was a secretary for the computer science department. In those days, way before TeX, we wrote our papers in longhand. Then a “typist” used an IBM selectric to make it into a typed paper. Special symbols like or , we take for granted now, were added either by hand like this:
or by using special IBM type balls. Modern typesetting has made writing papers so much easier.
When I did first got to Yale I was a terrible writer, just terrible. Mary-Claire helped me tremendously to become just bad. I hope I have learned over the years and now am okay. But in those days I really needed her help. One trick she did was when she typed up my papers she purposely made tons of typing errors—she was a near perfect typist. This was her subtle way to let me know that the “final draft” I had given her needed some work.
She eventually wrote her book and mentioned me in the preface to the book:
To Richard Lipton , who suggested many fine points that I hadn’t thought of and will undoubtedly take my gratitude as sarcasm.
She had strong opinions, one I recall was not to use quotes at all, or at least very sparingly. I try to avoid that in general, but today it is hard. There are just too many cool quotes about her. William Waterhouse wrote a great view of her book, here is the end of the review:
When explicit motivation is necessary, be on guard against grandiose, far-reaching statements. Early in my career I had the task of correcting an extraordinary essay from a student that began, “All the world is turning to thoughts of mortuary science.” A book like this cannot really be reviewed. It can be (and is) recommended.
When I first arrived at Princeton one of the major priorities was to raise money. We wrote NSF and other grants of all kinds to try and get dollars. There was a program that every year asked for asked for large department wide projects every year. One year I ran the proposal writing, was the PI, and helped put everything together. We did get a site visit, but did not get funded. The NSF folks did like the proposal enough—or had pity on us—that they did partially fund us. So at least we got some serious dollars from them. This money was much appreciated in the early days of the department. Princeton had then and still does have a huge endowment, but that does not mean that they are interested in using any of those dollars to fund a new effort. So getting even partial money from NSF was important.
We waited a year and then decided to try again to raise a large amount of money from NSF again. This time David Dobkin was the PI, and the rest of us were helpers. We planned to spend most of the summer just working on the proposal. I had the following idea: why not invite Mary-Claire to visit us, in order to help make the proposal better written. By then after her book was a success, she had moved on to be a member of the technical staff at Xerox Parc. Dobkin agreed and soon we had arranged to have her visit us for about a month. The plan was that she would help us write a great proposal.
We would, under her leadership, spend hours working on the structure of the proposal. We would even sometimes spend hours working the lead sentence for a whole section. She felt very strongly that even getting the first sentence just right would help make the document well written. We all worked very hard, the proposal was finally done just on time, and sent to NSF for review.
That year we did not even get a site visit form NSF. We were not even competitive enough to make it that far. Dobkin, as PI got the written reviews, in those days in a letter from NSF. He was not happy. He showed them to me. They were terrible. I mean really terrible. The reviewers did not like our proposal. I still recall my favorite:
This is one of the best written and slickest proposal I have ever read. Do NOT fund this work under any circumstances.
Somehow we had written a terrific piece of English, but we had squeezed out all the content. David was not amused; my idea on bringing in Mary-Claire had not worked.
We never did that again. Two years later we again tried and this time landed a fully funded project. The proposal had content, but was not nearly as well written as the previous one. Oh well.
Google can now do a pretty good job on translation. This sentence becomes translated into French as:
Google peut maintenant faire un très bon travail sur la traduction.
Then, back to English as:
Google can now do a very good job on the translation.
Which becomes a fixed point. Pretty good job.
I wondered in a note to them a while ago if they could tackle the following problem: translate English not to French or some other language but translate English to English. Or more generally X to X. The idea was that perhaps they could help improve the quality of this or any other written piece. Another idea was to translate within types of English. Formal to informal, legal to layperson, and so on.
Can Google, or anyone, actually build a system that would take an English paper and make it into “better” English?
I am very serious about this. Currently I rely on Subrahmanyam Kalyanasundaram to help make this into English. It would be great to have a way to automate the changes he makes to each post. Some changes are to content, but many are to the wording.