100 years of Alan Turing, Bletchley Park and Translation

As we approach what would have been Alan Turing's 100th birthday (23.06), many publications around the world have turned their attention to this remarkable man and how the brute computational power and logic of his mind came to see through to the essence of codes and ciphers as if they were written in plain text. In light of this I would like to highlight one often overlooked aspect of the process of his work, namely the translation of the intercepted transcripts from primarily German to English by a dedicated team of linguists at Bletchley Park. How did they translate the thousands of daily intercepts, and how would they work now?

At Bletchley Park the computing machines and minds whirred day and night to keep up with changes and advances in German encryption technology. Once those ciphers were broken and plain text emerged, there was one final level of decryption to process: translation. As so few English speakers understood German then, as now, despite its relative proximity and historical links with English, teams of translators were required to take over where the machines finished. If as much thought was put into the creation of translation machines as there was into decryption machines, the world now might have been a very different place, but then, even now we would still need to rely on teams of human proofreaders to check over the lightly garbled output of the machines if they were fed decrypted intercepts.

It would appear that translation and language study in the 1940s was mainly handled by women, with Bletchley Park's staff sheets revealing a nearly completely female proportion of women to men. The translators themselves were drafted in from the top universities, as 93 year-old Gwen Hollington related in 2011 [1],

"I was in my early 20s and just out of Cambridge where I had studied German and French at Girton College. When the war began the intelligence services came and interviewed lots of us Oxbridge students. I knew that it was to help with the war effort but I had no idea how. Once I arrived I found it was just like being at school because us girls worked separately from the boys."

Gwen worked in Hut 8, translating short sentences from German into English. Her work involved a degree of separation from any complete meaning, presumably in the interests of national security,

"Sometimes I came across words that I didn’t understand and then I just left them blank, and the translation would be taken to my superiors. I never understood what any of the sentences meant or whether they were important. My section was led by Alan Turing who I got to know quite well."

She goes on to say that she found it hard to conceive of German people being the enemy, as she had so many charming German friends, and that the hours worked were 'ferocious', from dawn until dusk most days, brought in on buses.

The intercepts themselves were ferried in at speed, on paper in the saddle-bags of motorcycles, converging from the various 'Y-Stations' dotted up and down the length of the country [2], where the raw data to be decrypted on arrival at Bletchley Park was being received.

The translation work for non-naval Enigma intercepts was performed in Hut 3, then forwarded to the Secret Intelligence Service, intelligence chiefs in the relevant ministries and out to commanders in the field. Naval Enigma messages were translated in Hut 4, forwarded solely to the Naval Intelligence Division of the force's Operational Intelligence Centre. These translations were supplemented by information from indexes that revealed the meaning of technical terms and abbreviations, and highlighted key information from a knowledge bank of German naval technology [3].

These indexes were created before the translations were sent on to intelligence departments and they were a highly useful resource for those analysing the final texts. There were three types of index used;

- key contents
- translation and context 
- technical details

The UK's current 'listening-house', GCHQ, has released examples of these indexes for the Bletchley Park Archives. These can be seen in person, or online [4].

The translators of today would make great use of a vast index of intelligence on all aspects of business and public services, and this is also a very real possibility with the technology available, however we are still a way off this level of organisation. The trend towards a semantic web may indeed make this kind of indexing and sorting of global data and contexts a reality in the future, but only time will tell on that front.

The work of the translators at Bletchley Park, made possible by the brilliance of Alan Turing and his colleagues, was every bit as crucial as those manning the radios and machines, and should today be considered as much of a key resource to continue to cultivate as the mathematics and radio-engineering fields of technology which help us to become ever more ingenious as a species. Linguists should be educated, immersed and specialised in order to be ready to be called upon in any situation where human to human communication is of the essence. As an added benefit to these linguists, situations where communication is key appear ever more frequently in everyday life, as the world of business and public affairs draws closer; we no longer require the fire of war to provide employement for linguists, thankfully!

So here's to Mr. Turing, and also to the translators whose decryptions of decryptions played their part in sustaining the futures and families of many millions of people around the world.



[1] The Herts Advertiser article from March 2011 (including a fun account of a Churchill visit)

[2] Y-Stations around the UK on Wikipedia

[3] Wikipedia article on Bletchley Park

[4] Archived indexes displayed online

Note: for a fictional account from the height of activity at Bletchley Park, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. It manages to bring to life the excitement, danger and humanity of the times, while weaving in a modern story of cryptography and technology advances.

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