mardi 12 mars 2019

2019: Ninetieth anniversary of Federico Pucci's machine translation concept

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and nothing more is known about Pucci...

John Hutchins

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Mr Federico Pucci is the very first precursor of machine translation as we know it today! Here is his story.

Two years after the publication of my first “scoop” regarding Federico Pucci and his mechanical translator, this post is a synthesis of the research conducted in collaboration with Oriana de MajoFederico Pucci’s granddaughter. It gives a summary of 19 previous articles (9 published on Adscriptor, 10 on Translation 2.0, mainly in French and in Italian), and it attempts to deliver a definitive answer to the question: did Mr Pucci’s “translating machine” ever exist?


The mechanical translator

In December 1929 (ninety years ago) Federico Pucci presented, in Salerno, for the first time, his study on the “mechanical translator”, subsequently disclosed to the Italian press in January 1930. In this same year he displayed the “mechanical translator”, that put his ideas into practice, in the literature section of the Bolzano National Exhibition for six months. For his study, he was awarded a silver medal.

This information is given by Federico Pucci himself in his first letter to the CNR (National Research Council), of 10 July 1949. But he also mentions this fact much earlier, in the preface to his book published in Salerno in 1931 (or Year IX of the fascist era!), in the first section of what might be considered the first book ever published on a “machine translating” device, called: “Il traduttore meccanico ed il metodo per corrispondersi fra europei conoscendo ciascuno solo la propria Lingua: Parte I.” (The mechanical translator and the method to communicate among Europeans, each native speaker knowing only his own language: Part I). The book had this cover:

Naturally the term “part one” meant that at least another volume was envisaged. The author adds on the cover: “Preparatory work for translating from one’s own language to a foreign language. Time required for learning how to translate: one minute (French language)”. With 68 pages of descriptions, it is not only his first work, but also the most comprehensive.

In his preface, drafted in Salerno on 10 December 1930, the author states: “This work sets out to demonstrate that it would be possible to communicate among foreigners, each native speaker knowing only his own language”.

Then, he gives an example of an Italian text translated into French, and of a French text translated into Italian according to his method. These are probably the first examples ever of a “machine translation” (long before the term “machine translation” was coined).

Pucci illustrated his method for “automatically” translating the text from Italian into French (Federico Pucci dixit) and the other way round. The first consideration is that it would not be easy to try to translate these texts even by current translation standards. So, one can only imagine the difficulties involved in translating it “automatically” 90 years ago...

I am still examining this material in order to fully understand how he could achieve such a remarkable result.

As I have already stressed, Pucci’s vision and approach to translation differed radically from any other previous (and future, we may add) endeavour. Indeed, already in 1929, he dreamed of creating an easy (Time needed for learning how to translate: one minute…), handy and economical machine. In 1950 he was actually selling his book at just 150 liras, and for 600 liras (almost 10 USD) he would add the device!

It was obviously a utopia: the portable, inexpensive machine he was dreaming of (less than one USD...) remained at a blueprint stage, even though his idea was nearly a hundred years in advance!

His invention pivoted around the following main ideas:
  • firstly, to divide the text into the smallest units of meaning (morphemes),
  • then to transpose these units into the foreign language,
  • finally, the receiver puts the words (generated by the machine) back into the order of the target language, of which he is a native speaker.
He was actually anticipating two concepts that are widely recognised today: that of language simplification, and that of good enough translations.

A method that is both logical and practical, making use of ideograms (basic & derived) invented for the purpose by Federico Pucci himself in the 1920s. His only aim was to enable people (including less educated members of society / anche le persone di limitata cultura) to see in their own language the words spoken by a foreigner that they would not have understood otherwise.

A method that had been in the making for quite a long time, certainly not last-minute improvisation. Its inventor was 33 years old when he first presented it to the general public. This means he would already have been cogitating for a long time (he was 27 when he published his first known work in 1923, entitled Manuale di letteratura Inglese : Parte I (I principali scrittori) (English literature manual: Part I (the main writers) (Salerno, Tip. Fratelli Jovane), not to mention all that he wrote for the next 30 years (I have come across 10 of his books) to describe and get people interested in his evolving invention.

He devoted his entire life to this invention but did not received due recognition, disappearing into oblivion for decades!

Let me now translate the two charts of international keys (basic & derived) and the rules for the practical application of the charts proposed by Pucci. This is the core of the invention, what the translating machine was intended to transpose “mechanically” to permit the “automatic” translation from one language to another.

The first step in Federico Pucci’s method was to draw up a system of international “keys” valid for the Romance languages. Below are the two charts proposed by him:
Moving on from theory to practice and from synthesis to analysis, here is a chart of the fundamental keys valid for the Romance languages. With one or two additions, we will see that the same keys hold good for Germanic and Slavic languages too.  
– A –


definite article

concept of plural




this, these
- near


that, those
- far
pronoun first pers. sing.
pronoun second pers. sing.
pronoun third pers. sing. masc.
pronoun third pers. sing. fem.
pronoun first pers. plural
pronoun second pers. plural
pronoun third pers. plural
pronoun third pers. plural fem.
first of the possessives
in most
Indo-European languages

who, which
concept of relative
indicating a person

indicating a thing
conjunction and

– B –


the three lines indicate the three tenses: the first, the first tense (present); the second, the second tense (past); the third the third tense (future).

Present indicative
The small vertical line indicates the determination of the tense, so in this case: determination of the first tense.

First determination of the second tense.

Remote past
Second determination of the second tense.

Determination of the third tense.

Concept of conjunction (subjunctive)

Present subjunctive

Past subjunctive


Participle or gerund
The cross indicates the participation of 2 concepts

Present participle

Past Participle




“K” was chosen as a symbol because the term conditional begins with the K sound in all Romance and Germanic languages


Mr Pucci later developed and added a second chart of basic keys by inflecting personal pronouns, articles, possessives, demonstratives, etc., with the aim of “enabling less educated people (this was back in the 1930s) to easily come up with the equivalents in Italian.”

These charts were followed by rules for their application, and with the explanation for their operation:
  1. The words indicated in the second column of box A must be replaced by the corresponding ideogram, with the exception of m and f, which must be joined to the adjective with a dash, indicating gender, e.g. buon libro, write: “buon -m libro” [concept: good (masculine in Italian) book].
  2. The ideograms in box B express the variation to the concept of infinitive produced by the inflection of the verb. For example, for the Italian word porterebbe, knowing that this is the conditional of the verb portare, one would write portare
  3. One should attempt to express propositions as direct constructions and include abbreviated or implied words), e.g. to convey the expression I’ll leave tomorrow, you write: I shall leave tomorrow, i.e. I leave  (ideogram of future) tomorrow.
  4. Diminutives, nicknames, etc. should be replaced, having the modified entry preceded by an adjective that provided the intended meaning of the altered word: e.g. giardinetto = piccolo giardino (small garden).
  5. Expressions that are rare in the language being translated should be replaced by simpler terms expressing an equivalent meaning.
If the foreigner replaces the words received with terms found in the dictionary, he shall automatically obtain the version in his own language, bearing in mind that for names that vary in terms of gender, the dictionary will indicate the variation, and this change will have a knock-on effect on connected words.

Thus, if as an Italian, I wish to communicate with a French “una buona scelta”, I will write “1 buono-f scelta”. In the dictionary the French will find: scelta, f, and understand that the Italian has given to the adjective “buono” the character “f”, because “scelta” is a feminine word. However, as the corresponding French term, “choix”, has a masculine gender, he understands that the “f” for “buono” takes the value “m” in French, thus, it becomes “1 bon -m choix”, that is “un bon choix”.

Since the above-mentioned system clearly expresses the interdependence of words, the order in which words may be placed, on account of the way sentences are constructed in different languages, has no bearing on the interpretation of the thought. Anyone who has studied Latin will know this very well.

Let us take an example from English:
The future tense in English, translated, say, to Italian: I shall give him a good pen.
Knowing that I shall give is the future of the verb give, we have:
I give III3 14 good -n pen.
In Italian this gives us: I dare III3 14 buono -f penna.
[In French: I donner III3 14 bon -m stylo.]
And we can reconstruct, from the chart rules, the following: Io darò a lui una buona penna.
And in more correct Italian:
Io gli darò una buona penna...
If we apply these rules to the Dante passage (from La Vita Nuova),

phrases are reduced to morphemes, the smallest units of meaning (noun, infinitive of the verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) to be translated using the portable dictionary incorporated in the machine, thus producing a message made up of ideograms (international keys having the same meaning in different languages) and words translated into the language of the native speaker, who simply has to put the words in the right order.

We are talking about the 1930s... I have translated the same passage from French into Italian using Google’s neuronal machine translator, 90 years later. Apart from the missing phrase in Federico Pucci’s text, I would be hard pressed to say which version is the best one!

And Pucci concludes (I am paraphrasing here): “This translation is quite correct, [and undoubtedly better] than what a secondary school pupil could manage after having studied French for a few years. Now, we are not looking for a perfect translation, only a way to understand, and there is no doubt that a Frenchman would be able to understand the sense of the produced text.” 

This is the concept of the “good enough” translation, already supported in 1931, when the author was just 35 years old...

Reporting on a conference held by Mr Pucci in Salerno on 21 January 1930, published on 6 February 1930 in the Salerno edition of the newspaper “Il Mattino”, the journalist wrote: “Mr Pucci first demonstrated that all the attempts by foreign scientists made over the last three centuries had achieved no practical results, and then in an extremely practical way he presented his own method, getting persons who had not studied English and German to translate some phrases in those languages.”

As the journalist reports, during the presentation of the book, Pucci had members of the audience translate some phrases from Italian into English and German and they did not know either of the two foreign languages. Should we infer that they availed themselves of a machine invented by Pucci?

A reply may be given by through careful analysis of the words chosen by the journalist: “Mr Pucci first demonstrated… in an extremely practical way his own method, getting persons…”. As in the subtitle to Pucci’s book, the journalist does not write about a “machine”, rather merely about a “method”. Which is obviously not the same thing. [Top]


The Bolzano national exhibition (1930) – The precursor to “translating machines”

Now, let us go back to the silver medal obtained in Bolzano. It is an extremely relevant detail, as it means that a prototype of the “mechanical translator” had already been on display in 1930. But was it really a “machine”, a “prototype” developed by its inventor, or something else?

Well, there was no machine. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I have found an edition of the catalogue of the first National Exhibition of Arts and Crafts of Bolzano, with a collection of official photographs of the fair, referring to the period June – November 1930.

The December 1929/January 1930 presentation had been organised by Dopolavoro Ferroviario (Railway Workers’ Recreational Association) of Salerno. This might explain Pucci’s participation in what was his first exhibition, the aim of which were:
1) to confer awards on those participants whose products are the creative expression of after-work activity devoted to the creation of fine works, in the sphere of the arts and crafts...

Some works were models, such as this radiotelegraph transmitting station. Thus, even without mentioning a “machine”, if there had been a model of the “mechanical translator”, it would have obviously taken its place in the catalogue. Unfortunately, there is no article referring to it, and no photo of either a model or a machine!

Anyway, in the light of the above-mentioned time references and historical records, it is safe to say that Federico Pucci's machine translation concept was almost a hundred years ahead of his time.

He was also a few years ahead of the patents filed in 1933 by French engineer Georges Artsruni, of Armenian origin, and Soviet engineer Petr Petrov-Smirnov Troyanskij, the universally recognised pioneers of machine translation for their mechanical brain and automated dictionary respectively.

Hence, we have the documentary evidence of Artsrouni and Troyanskij’s translating machines, but no certainty about Pucci’s “mechanical translator”. So far, all my researches to find a concrete, physical trace of his machine have failed.

I have reached the conclusion that the machine never existed, despite the considerable amount of energy and efforts devoted by its inventor to build one, although Pucci made a new model for each edition of his “machine-book”.

Federico Pucci had a very clear vision of what his “translating machines” should be like. He himself talks about his protean idea:
Notes on machines and how they work

Translating machines can be of different types: simple, mechanical, electrical, phonoelectric, photoelectric and remote-electric. These then give rise to numerous mixed types, including the Portable Electromechanical Interpreter, awarded a prize at the Liège Inventions' Competition.
Let me explain the general concept underlying these machines. The pages of the portable dictionary, which in the model presented consist of two columns glued onto cardboard, are pushed forward by a human hand. If one had to express the phrase “egli va”, to an Englishman, the phrase begins with the letter e, so the letter E is pulled out by hand, bringing up the page containing the words that begin with E. The second letter of the first word leads us to immediately find egli – he. And the same for “andare”, which gives us to go. Since we are using the present indicative, we look at the morphological corrector and find that for the present indicative 3rd person singular the verb form is oes; thus, he goes. 
In the electrical type, elements are moved by electricity rather than by hand. In the phonoelectric type, the portable dictionary is arranged in three columns, the first two printed on the canister, the third consists of a steel disc, like that of a gramophone. This records the voice of the foreign language speaker with the pronunciation of the translations in the foreign language. Next to each Italian word there is a number. By pressing a button, a hook electrified via a magnetic field goes to the recorded pronunciation and reads the word in the foreign language, after an electrical movement has undertaken the graphic and phonetic correction. In the example given above, the o is replaced with oes. The remote-electric system entails the use of two electric translators, one working as a transmitter, located for instance in Rome, the other as a receiver, for instance in London. By connecting the two devices via a teleprinter the same movements undertaken by the transmitter are recorded on the London-based device, resulting in both a written and spoken “remote” translation. In subsequent types the syntax-correcting part B is incorporated in the portable dictionary. I have used this instrument to make the dictionary simpler for my experiments. I have chosen English as an initial application of the system as there are few morphological variations in this language. For sound experiments Spanish will be the preferred language, and the first phonoelectric trials will take place between Rome (perhaps the Accademia Universale Inventori ed Autori) and the telephone exchanges of Spanish-language organisations allied to the Pro Pace(*) (…) With those types in which the portable dictionary is complete, the first letter is brought out, taking with it the folder that includes all the words that begin with that letter. Then there is the second letter that is brought out using the same system, bringing to the fore the third letter, and so on. 
By replacing the electrical or manual movement with a keyboard, it may be possible to type in the word, in order to bring out the foreign word. This is the system I presented in Paris in September 1949, reported by the official French radio at 8 p.m. on 2 September 1949, and by the English newspaper News Chronicle on 26 August 1949 (…)

(*) Pro Pace: International Association of which Pucci was Chairman

Yet although he spent all of his life trying, writing continuously for thirty years describing his invention (as far as I know in 10 books, from 1931 to 1960), after nearly a century his numerous attempts at “translating” his vision and concept into a “physical device” did not result in any great success.

The only two “awards” we have (Paris 1935 and Liège 1950, since it appears that the silver medals of Bolzano and Cuneo have been stolen) tell us as much, just as the numerous other clues tell us about his failed attempts to build his machine.

Now let us examine more closely: 1) the awards; 2) the clues[Top]


1) The awards

a) Paris, May 1935

I first thought that this award, issued in May 1935 by the Paris Trade Fair Committee, referred to the Lépine competition, usually held as part of the Paris trade fair. However, the 33rd Lépine competition was held from 30 August to 7 October 1935, at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre, more than three months after the award was issued.

The answer lies in the monthly journal of the International industrial property protection office, entitled “La Propriété Industrielle” (51st year, issue no. 4, 30 April 1935):
“…alongside the Paris Trade Fair, to be held in this city from 18 May to 3 June 1935 at the Versailles Exhibition Centre park, an invention competition will be held, open from 10 May to 3 June (decree dated 22 March)”… 
Certificates of guarantee will be issued [for the Paris event] by the Industrial property director…, under the conditions set forth in the decrees of 17 July and 30 December 1908 (-).
It is specified that the Paris Trade Fair Competition only accepted “truly new inventions never before presented in other competitions”.

The previous year, “even though most of the projects submitted were of real interest, after a very careful examination the panel conferred awards to only 170 of the 643 inventors taking part in the Competition, who had submitted a total of 1,055 new inventions. The rigorousness of the panel implies that only meritorious inventions were given an award. This shows the high level of the competition and the interest it garners for both researchers and industry.” (Source)

So, this award attests to a silver medal rewarding a “truly praiseworthy invention”: “a method to translate languages without knowing them”!

The same term as the one used by the journalist in 1930. The words are once again of prime importance…

Pucci himself confirms this at least on two occasions. First in one of his books, in which he writes “This is the system I presented in Paris in September 1949”, then in his first letter to the CNR: “this study [was] awarded a silver medal at the international invention exhibition held as part of the Paris trade fair in 1935”.

A “method”, a “system”, a “study”, but not a “machine”.

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b) Liège, 1950

This International trade fair took place in Liège from 29 April to 14 May 1950 with the theme “At the forefront of technology”, in particular in the areas of “mining, metallurgy, mechanical engineering and industrial electricity.”

This is probably why, in his book, Pucci describes the invention presented on that occasion as a “Portable Electromechanical Interpreter”, while the award refers to a silver medal that Pucci won for “Written and spoken translation of languages without knowing them”.

An expression that appears to rule out any idea of a “machine”, notwithstanding the name chosen by its inventor on this occasion, probably in order to make his invention relevant for the themes concerning the trade fair. [Top]


2) The clues

The main clues are given to us by Mr Pucci himself in his two letters to the CNR, written on 10 July 1949 and 17 October 1950 respectively, and in the CNR’s reply, dated 20 July 1949, to the first letter, referring to: “…the Italian electro-mechanical translator that will participate in the invention competition that will be held from 16 to 29 September in Paris”.

“…I should say that in 1936 I was also allowed to participate in the Leipzig Exhibition. However, the International Inventions Exhibition, held in the same city, did not accept my submission, even though it acknowledged my studies and their inventive nature, as in view of the originality of the invention, the only one to be contained in books, German law did not allow the patenting of the invention, unlike French law. I had indeed been granted a provisional patent in France. In view of the German interest in finding out about the innovation, the Leipzig Trade Fair organisation worked for my admission in another section, granting me a special dispensation.”

So, no machine existed.

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Then the war came, and I attempted to steer my studies towards a military use. I managed to create mechanical translating devices “C” and “D”, a mechanical solution, attempting to create a new mechanical-based language, with device C working as a transmitter, and D as a receiver device. They were to be submitted to the 1940 Engineering Exhibition, but the War Ministry opposed its participation. I was called to Rome to explain the invention. It was approved, and I was authorised to build and try out the device, at the State’s expense, since I had informed them I could not afford to build it on my own. Obviously I was obliged to keep everything secret. However, as I was not a mechanic, I thought that I would need the assistance of other persons, who might not be able to keep the secret. I did not want to run this risk, so I turned down the assignment, and left the invention in the hands of the War Ministry, so that it might do whatever it wanted with the idea.

Let me to stress Federico Pucci’s words: “I was authorised to build and try out the device, at the State’s expense”… “However, as I was not a mechanic …, I did not want to run this risk, so I turned down the assignment, and left the invention in the hands of the War Ministry, so that it might do whatever it wanted with the idea.”

So, it can be argued that no machine was ever built, either by Mr Pucci or at the behest of the War Ministry.

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In the first two paragraphs of his second letter to the CNR, Pucci states:

- First paragraph:

I respectfully note that… following some blueprints that I presented at the Paris Exhibition of Inventions (September 1949)…

Presentation of “blueprints” and not of a “machine”.

This was also mentioned in the first letter:
The three-stage dynamic-mechanical translating device has been allowed to the international inventions' competition, that was part of the Paris Trade Fair, opening on 16 September (…) 
It should be noted that the Paris Inventions Exhibition also accepted inventions in the form of blueprints, in such cases merely checking the correctness of the theories submitted. 
The Industrial property office in Paris is working accordingly to issue a certificate of guarantee in favour of the undersigned.
Here, the mention of a “certificate of guarantee” is relevant, as it corroborates what we have already seen in the monthly journal of the international industrial property protection office, entitled “La Propriété Industrielle” (51st year, issue no. 4, 30 April 1935):
Certificates of guarantee will be issued [in the case of Paris] by the Industrial property director…, as per the conditions set forth in the decrees of 17 July and 30 December 1908 (-).
Going into further detail, the decree of 17 July 1908 was promulgated in order to implement the “Law of 13 April 1908 concerning the temporary protection of industrial property in international exhibitions held overseas or officially recognised exhibitions, such as exhibitions organised in France or overseas territories with the administration’s authorisation or its patronage”. Art. 1 of this decree states:
Temporary protection is granted to patentable inventions and industrial blueprints, trademarks or brand names for products that are correctly admitted to such exhibitions…
While art. 2 (in the version updated through 5 September 2018) states:
Exhibitors wishing to obtain temporary protection, shall seek the issue of a certificate of guarantee to ensure that the item for which protection is requested, is actually on display. 
This certificate shall be requested during the exhibition and by no later than the three-month period from the official opening of the event. The application shall contain an accurate description of the item to be protected and, if applicable, the blueprints relating to the item.
So according to Federico Pucci himself, the industrial property protection office of Paris issued to him a certificate of guarantee not for the “translating machine”, which had not in any case been built, but for its “blueprints”.

- Second paragraph:

The Inventions Institute appears to hold the view that although the Invention is of scientific relevance (having retraced case no. 11095, in which the Institute approved the undersigned’s invention, however, since it consisted of a book and not a machine, decided that it could not be patented, 12 December 1942),…

This time we have it in print: the invention could not be patented as it was a book and not a machine!

- - -

In its reply to Pucci’s first letter, the CNR notes that “…your idea regarding the “Italian electro-mechanical translator” may be submitted to the National Institute for the Examination of Inventions… by presenting [a technically well-defined and suitably illustrated project] in order to permit a relative judgement which, if favourable, will enable us to provide suitable assistance for the development of the invention.”

Thus, we can see that what Pucci presented is a blueprint for an invention that was never fully developed. [Top]


And so, the final answer is...

Summing up, in view of the many elements and clues that I was able to gather, I dare say that the answer to the question: «Did Federico Pucci’s “translating machine” ever exist?» is NO!

Sadly, Pucci was left alone with his exceptional foresight and could not manage to pool together enough financial and technical resources to build a prototype. And so, he was not able to patent an invention that never went beyond the conceptual phase, with its blueprints, models and descriptions.

Yet Mr Pucci continued to take part to numerous exhibitions and to write several books on the subject, using all the means at his disposal, in order to promote his “translating machines” and their novelty:

in 20 years, from 1930 to 1950, he took part to seven national and international exhibitions and invention competitions (the terminology used by Pucci in his letters), without mentioning the 1940 Engineering Exhibition (I imagine in Rome, participation in which had been blocked by the War Ministry), receiving a total of four silver medals:
  1. Bolzano National Trade Fair (1930), silver medal
  2. Cuneo Trade Fair (1930), silver medal
  3. International Inventions Exhibition, Levante Trade Fair, Bari (1934)
  4. International Inventions Competition, Paris Trade Fair (1935), silver medal
  5. International Inventions Exhibition, Leipzig (1936)
  6. Inventions Exhibition, Paris Trade Fair (1949)
  7. Liège Inventions Competition (1950), silver medal
in 30 years, from 1931 to 1960, he wrote ten books about his “translating machines”:
  1. 1931: Il traduttore meccanico ed il metodo per corrispondersi fra Europei conoscendo ciascuno solo la propria lingua: Parte I (Traduzioni dalla lingua estera). Pubblicato nell'Anno IX dell'era fascista! - [The translating machine and the method for Europeans to correspond, knowing only their own language: Part I (Translating from foreign language). Published in Year IX of the fascist era!]

  2. 1949: Serie delle grammatiche dinamiche, pratiche, ragionate, storico-comparate: Parte I. Per coloro che in pochi giorni desiderano acquistare una conoscenza elementare della lingua straniera. [fasc. ] I. Inglese - [A series of dynamic, practical, coherent, historical-comparative grammars: Part I. For those who wish to acquire, in a few days, a basic knowledge of a foreign language. [folder ] I. English]

  3. 1949 (in francese): Le traducteur dynamo-mécanique: L'invention pour traduire les langues de l'occident sans les connaitre presque sans dictionnaire. Op. I: anglais-francais. Col sottotitolo: "Perfectionnement de l'invention primée (traduction mécanique) avec diplôme de médaille d'argent à l'Exposition Concours International des Inventions, Foire de Paris 1935". - [(in French): The dynamic-mechanical translator: An invention to translate Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary. Op. I: English-French. With the subtitle: “Perfecting the invention (mechanical translator) awarded a silver medal at the International Inventions Competition, Paris Trade Fair 1935”.]

  4. 1949: Il traduttore dinamo-meccanico: Serie A. L'invenzione per la traduzione immediata e rapida nelle lingue dell'Occidente senza conoscerle e quasi senza vocabolario... [fasc. ] 1. francese - italiano - [The dynamic-mechanical translator: Series A. The invention for the immediate and rapid translation in Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary... [folder ] 1. French – Italian]

  5. 1949: Il traduttore dinamo-meccanico: Serie A. L'invenzione per la traduzione immediata e rapida nelle lingue dell'Occidente senza conoscerle e quasi senza vocabolario... [fasc. ] 2. Inglese - italiano - [The dynamic-mechanical translator: Series A. The invention for the immediate and rapid translation in Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary... [folder ] 2. English – Italian]

  6. 1950: Grammatica dinamica della Lingua tedesca: (linee fondamentali) - [Dynamic grammar of the German language: (the basics)]

  7. 1950: Il traduttore dinamo-meccanico: Tipo libro macchina. Serie a. L'invenzione per la traduzione immediata e rapida nelle lingue dell'Occidente senza conoscerle e quasi senza vocabolario. [fasc. ] 1. Italiano-Inglese - [The dynamic-mechanical translator: machine-book type. Series A. The invention for the immediate and rapid translation in Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary... [folder ] 1. Italian - English]

  8. 1952: Il traduttore dinamo-meccanico: Serie B. L'invenzione per la traduzione immediata e rapida nelle lingue dell'Occidente senza conoscerle e quasi senza vocabolario... [fasc. ] 1. Italiano - Francese - [The dynamic-mechanical translator: Series B. The invention for the immediate and rapid translation in Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary... [folder ] 1. Italian – French]

  9. 1958: Vocabolario mobile italiano - francese: (parte Traduttore Meccanico). - [Portable dictionary Italian – French: (Mechanical Translator part).]

  10. 1960: Il traduttore dinamo-meccanico: Serie A. L'invenzione per la traduzione immediata e rapida nelle lingue dell'Occidente senza conoscerle e quasi senza vocabolario... Tedesco – Italiano - [The dynamic-mechanical translator: Series A. The invention for the immediate and rapid translation in Western languages without knowing them and practically without a dictionary... German - Italian]



The announcement of 26 August 1949

All of the above in order to achieve a single tangible result - after such a great deal of energy and resources over such a long period of time -, a simple announcement published on Friday 26 August 1949 (seventy years ago this year), both in Great Britain and in the United States.

In Great Britain the News Chronicle published the following in one of its columns:
You type in English, it prints Greek
British tourists should be able to circle the globe without having to learn languages if inventor Frederico (sic!) Pucci, of Salerno, completes his “electric translator”.
He says that it will be ready in about a fortnight. 
On Pucci’s machine one merely types words in, say, English, and the machine prints them in Italian, Greek or any other language.

So, the machine was not yet ready, and Federico Pucci had refused to supply further details...

In the United States, the United Press issued an agency release on 25 August 1949, which was picked up the day after by the New York Times:

and by several American newspapers over the following days (from 26 to 29 August). Thanks to Google I found a dozen or so such articles on the Internet. There will undoubtedly be others (click on the image to see the list):

The titles are different, but they all repeat the same text, along these lines:

And after that, complete silence. And total oblivion for almost half a century! Until John Hutchins, a specialist and historian of machine translation, reported the few lines from the New York Times mentioned above...

Before adding: “and nothing more is known about Pucci...” and:
It is not known how many others at this time had similar ideas about translating machines. The new electronic computers had caught the imagination of many people. Reports on the 'electronic brains' – the term regularly used by journalists – appeared almost daily in national newspapers throughout the world. Translation was then, and often still is, regarded by those unfamiliar with its difficulties as essentially a question of finding equivalent words in another language. To use a computer in such a task seemed trivial.
What we can be sure of, however, is that this consideration does not concern Mr Pucci. By 1949 he had already been attempting to theorise the “machine translator” for some 20 years, well before the era of the computer. And he had been the only one to do so back then.

And then, a return to total oblivion for another two decades! Until the undersigned, while preparing an infographic on the history of machine translation, read the article reported by John Hutchins. This discovery was so mind-blowing that I forgot all about the infographic and concentrated my research on the remarkable story of Federico Pucci…

His idea of what machine translation should be like, was completely different from that of all other researchers in the field. He had realised right from the start that the brute force of a machine would never be able to convey properly the extreme fluidity of a language. French, Russians and Americans realised this at their expense, having kissed goodbye to millions and millions of francs, dollars and rubles since World War Two, without having anything tangible to show for it. Until Google came...

I imagine that the registered letter sent to President Truman (probably in late April/early May 1949) didn't have the sole purpose of receiving financial support for the construction of electric translator devices, but Pucci also had the intention of date-stamping his blueprints. In 1953 he sent a second registered letter, this time to Clare Boothe Luce, then ambassador of the United States in Rome. It went unanswered.

His approach is very clear, and can be seen in particular in his first letter to the CNR, in which he claims paternity for the invention of the electronic brain announced by the Americans [citing the works of Harry Huskey, who intended to use his SWAC (Standards' Western Automatic Computer) for machine translating, information also reported by Mr Hutchins], and also stresses its extremely high cost, and:
1) the huge sums of money made available by the US Government for the construction of the electronic brain, even though it cannot be marketed, is unsuitable for the intended purpose and can be used only to translate to and from the national language-foreign language;
2) tens of thousands of lire would be needed to build Italian electro-mechanical translating devices, not billions of dollars;
3) Italian electro-mechanical translating devices would have a limited cost, could be mass-produced for both domestic and overseas markets, and could bring in far more for the State than their original cost. The undersigned, certainly believes that with the help of Italian electro-mechanical expertise, it will be possible, in the near future, to type a text in Italy and obtain the translation overseas, both written and spoken.
It is a view that foreboded the global democratisation of machine translation as we know it today, a phenomenon that will grow more and more in the future.

I am quite frankly amazed by, and fail to accept, the deafening silence regarding the existence of Federico Pucci, since I started talking about him on the Internet and publishing my discoveries about him. Except for one student doing a master’s in translation, so far, no researcher, academic or any of the main experts of machine translation has contacted me or looked more closely into this new material, which evidently clashes with the accepted history of MT.

And when I have tried to talk about him to some experts, I have at best been greeted by a condescending smile, at worst I have been completely ignored! Perfectly in keeping with the haughty indifference that has always been shown to Mr Pucci’s work and human adventure.

Keeping things in due proportion, his story is not dissimilar to that of Charles Goodyear, who spent his whole life attempting to get his invention acknowledged, in vain, dying in the most abject misery. [Top]


A man of ingenuity and culture

His daughter had the following words inscribed on his gravestone:
Cav. Federico Pucci, 23/03/1896 - 6/03/1973
A man of ingenuity and of culture

Federico Pucci was also a renowned linguist. There are at least three certificates issued by the Prefecture of Salerno attesting to his linguistic expertise.

On 19 August 1940, a letter regarding the Provincial censorship commission – Interpreters, addressed to the Interior Ministry by the Prefect of Salerno, mentions Federico Pucci:
There is also an employee of the State Railways company who not only knows [German, French, English and Spanish], but is also an expert in the following languages: Czech, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish and Slavic languages.
In another letter, dated 30 October 1942, concerning the War Censorship Service, again addressed to the Interior Ministry by the Prefect of Salerno, the situation is described as follows:
This Provincial Commission has been receiving for some time copious amounts of correspondence, for its censoring, written in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, Swedish, Danish, Flemish, Norwegian, Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Slovenian, Croatian, Bohemian, Czech, etc. from other Commissions, especially those in: Naples, Rome, Catanzaro, Brindisi, Bari, Ancona, Benevento, Campobasso, Avellino, Caltanissetta, Florence, Catania, Syracuse, Reggio Calabria, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, etc.
The excessive amount of translation work needed has been assigned to acting censor Cav. Pucci Federico, an employee of the State Railways company, who is a skilled polyglot, and who almost every day is required to work beyond normal working hours and to make an extra effort to ensure the smooth running of the service.
I propose that Mr Pucci, who has performed exceptionally in both quantitative and qualitative terms, be given a monthly salary of L. 700 in view of his status as sole specialist translator.
Finally, Prefect G. Cenami, in a document dated 15 September 1948, written in his capacity as “Chairman of the Provincial War Censorship Commission”, notes that Mr Pucci was “a renowned and expert polyglot… in around thirty languages!!
… During the war, in particular from July 1940 to July 1943, Rag. Pucci carried out (…) the duties of translator-censor of foreign correspondence handled by the Provincial war censorship commission of Salerno.
Mr Pucci, a renowned and expert linguist, was assigned the task of translating and censoring not only civilian correspondence written in around thirty foreign languages arriving in Salerno, but also correspondence from numerous other Provincial Commissions endowed with translators, as per ministerial orders. Mr Pucci carried out these duties commendably and with great discernment.
It should be noted that the second letter mentions “Cav. Pucci Federico”, including the honorary title of Knight that we also see on his gravestone. His granddaughter and I wondered about the origins of the honour conferred, and above all about the reasons for it. We first thought about it being for work-related merits. This honour however, was created in 1951, while the Quaestor of Salerno’s reference is prior to that date! So, it could only refer to Knighthood of the Kingdom of Italy and not of the Republic. It was more likely to have been of the order of the Crown of Italy.

After extensive research, Federico Pucci’s granddaughter found his grandfather’s nomination for a Knighthood, dated 27 October 1936 (year XIV of the fascist era), signed by Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia!

It reads:

“Having regard to special merits;
Having consulted the Board of the Orders of St Maurizio and St Lazzaro of the Crown of Italy;
At the proposal of the Head of Government, Prime Minister and State Secretary (Mussolini) and the Minister for Communications (Antonio Stefano Benni)
This is to nominate
as Knights of the Order of the Crown of Italy, with the power to bear the insignia established for the said grade, the following three hundred and seventy-one persons:

Pucci Rag. Federico – Head of operations 2nd cl. - Naples 263

The Chancellor of the Order is hereby tasked with enacting this Decree, which will be registered with the Chancellery of the Order.
Delivered at San Rossore, 27 October 1936 - XIV

I believe the key clue here is “At the proposal... of the Minister for Communications” for services rendered by Federico Pucci, before acting as a translator and censor during the war. And this was probably an acknowledgement of the award obtained in Paris in the previous year, for his “method for translating languages without knowing them”!


So what should we conclude, on the eve of the 90th anniversary of Pucci’s concept of machine translation? I believe that the rich and intense journey already travelled is much shorter than the one that is still ahead in order to ensure universal recognition of the role played by Federico Pucci as one of the first pioneers of machine translation, and for a University, or one of the leading actors of machine translation (Google maybe?), to take up his work and his ideas and finally build a working prototype, in line with his protean vision of “translating machines”…

I hope I managed to stir your curiosity on Federico Pucci's legacy in the field of “mechanical translation”, the unknown ancestor of what is currently known as “machine translation”. [Top]

P.S. The history of machine translation in the 20th century now needs to be rewritten from the 1930s onwards:

1929 (December): Federico Pucci presents his study on the “mechanical translator” for the first time in Salerno.

1930: Federico Pucci’s participation in the first National After-Work Arts and Crafts Exhibition of Bolzano – literary section, with his concept of “mechanical translator”, awarded a silver medal.

1931: Federico Pucci publishes in Salerno the first part of what we might consider to be the first book ever published anywhere on a “mechanical translating device”, called: "“The mechanical translator and the method for Europeans to correspond, knowing only their own language: Part I: Translating from foreign language).”"

1932: likely construction of a prototype “translating machine” by Georges Artsrouni, later destroyed. No document has been kept about it, except for a photograph that makes a description impossible. (Source)

1932: Warren Weaver becomes director of the Rockefeller Foundation.

1933: filing of patent and presentation to Soviet authorities of Petr Petrovič Smirnov-Trojanskij’s machine, probably at the design and description stage. (Source)

1933-1935: construction of Georges Artsrouni’s “mechanical brain”:

1935: presentation of Federico Pucci’s “mechanical translator” at the Inventors Competition, part of the Trade Fair of Paris, receiving a silver medal for a “a method for translating languages without knowing them”! (Source)

1937: Georges Artsrouni presents some machines at the National Exhibition of Paris, the principle of which received a Grand Prix award for mechanical data processing, according to the inventor himself.

1939-1945 : World War Two

Federico Pucci’s publishing activity is interrupted between 1931 and 1949, a time corresponding to the pre-war, war and post-war periods, during which little is known about Federico Pucci, apart from his participation in some Exhibitions and his work as a censor, about which he writes:
Then the war came, and I attempted to steer my studies towards a military use. I managed to create mechanical translating devices “C” and “D”, a mechanical solution, attempting to create a new mechanical-based language, with device C working as a transmitter, and D as a receiver device. They were to be submitted to the 1940 Engineering Exhibition, but the War Ministry opposed its participation. I was called to Rome to explain the invention. It was approved, and I was authorised to build and try out the device, at the State’s expense, since I had informed them, I could not afford to build it on my own. Obviously, I was obliged to keep everything secret. However, as I was not a mechanic, I thought that I would need the assistance of other persons, who might not be able to keep the secret. I did not want to run this risk, so I turned down the assignment, and left the invention in the hands of the War Ministry, so that it might do whatever it wanted with the idea.
This marks a big gap in our story that it would be very interesting to fill...

I wish to conclude this post by calling for the intervention of a University or any Authority in the field of Machine Translation, in order to highlight the unique role played by Federico Pucci in the history of MT, and to realize his dream of building prototypes of his manifold “translating machines”, for which he himself provides all the elements needed in his books.

In the fnal analysis, apart from the well-known machines of Georges Artsrouni and Petr Petrovič Smirnov-Trojanskij, which in fact have never had any practical implications in the field, John Hutchins dates the nascent years of machine translation back to the time 1947-1954.

So we can assert without fear of being denied that Mr Federico Pucci is the very first precursor of machine translation as we know it today! [Top]

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