Familiar language translation services like Google Translate, Babelfish, and Bing Translator can be frustrating and unintentionally hilarious today, but they've come a long way since the start of computerized translation during the Cold War. Matt Novak has written an interesting article for the BBC that explores those origins, beginning with American scientist Warren Weaver. Weaver's 1949 paper "Translation" was distributed throughout the scientific community, which – together with the American government's desire to compete with Russian scientific discoveries during the Cold War – led to one of the first attempted language translation programs. The program, known as "the electronic brain," was built for the IBM 701 and was first used in 1954 with just 250 words and six grammar rules. To gain a little more appreciation for how far electronic language translation has come, take a look at the full article on the BBC.
N.B. The article is not available in the UK because it's posted to BBC Future, part of the commercial BBC Worldwide service and therefore not funded by the license fee.