Léon Dostert

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Léon Dostert (May 14, 1904 – September 1, 1971) was a French-born American scholar of languages and a pivotal proponent of machine translation. He was responsible for enduring innovations in translation, such as the simultaneous, head-set method used at the Nuremberg Trials, which is still used today at international gatherings and international institutions like the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Longwy, France, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Dostert's foreign-language capabilities became apparent during a childhood affected by World War I. His village on the Belgian border was overrun by the German army during that conflagration before being liberated by its American counterpart, and Dostert had mastered both German and English before the end of hostilities. Such was his command of both languages, he worked as a translator for both the Germans and the Americans.[1]

Orphaned before the outbreak of war, Dostert was well liked by the American troops he worked for – so much so, in fact, that a few of them sponsored his education in the United States after the war. In 1921, after recovering from war-related ill-health, Dostert enrolled in a high school in Pasadena, California.[2] He entered Occidental College in 1925, before moving to Georgetown University a few years later, where in 1928 he gained a BS in foreign service.[3] Another bachelor's degree, in philosophy, followed in 1930, and a master's in 1931.[1] Dostert was accepted as a PhD student in languages at Johns Hopkins, though he never finished his thesis.[3]

Wartime service[edit]

Dostert was responsible for translation at the Nuremberg Trials.

Machine translation[edit]

Dostert became the inaugural head of Georgetown's Institute of Languages and Linguistics. The Institute would collaborate with IBM to perform the first ever machine translation, which was publicly demonstrated in 1954.[4][5] Dostert himself announced the achievement, though the public event itself was more a proof of concept to garner further interest and resources.[6]


  1. ^ a b Gordin 2015, p. 230.
  2. ^ Sources differ on which school he attended. For example, Gordin (2015), p. 230) states Pasadena High School, while Walker (2015) gives South Pasadena High School.
  3. ^ a b Walker 2015.
  4. ^ Nye, Mary Jo (2016). "Speaking in Tongues: Science's centuries-long hunt for a common language". Distillations. 2 (1): 40–43. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  5. ^ Gordin, Michael D. (2015). Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226000299.
  6. ^ "IBM press release of January 8, 1954, for 701 Translator". ibm.com. Retrieved 6 May 2016.