Technological Solutions To Military Language Barriers

One of the major issues for both the American intelligence community and the military has been the paucity of professionals in their ranks who are fluent in Arabic. Like any other major language, there are dialectic variations within the language that make fluent translation and understanding that much more difficult. One need only consider the vast dialectical differences in American English to begin to understand the kind of “nuance” that rigidly thinking machines will have to content with. Technologists among us are developing equipment that can assist even the most hopelessly monolingual in uniform communicate with the citizens of the nation he or she is occupying. The United States Army is field testing a hand-held voice translator device developed by Integrated Wave Technologies. This device is already in use in other parts of the world and is being used by soldiers in the field in Iraq. The device converts simple English commands into Iraqi Arabic or 15 other languages. When the soldier says a simple phrase — for example, “keep kids back” – the ‘voice response translator’ (VRT) matches that command to a more complex phrase in Arabic. In this case: “Keep your children back from us or we will take action against you.” Not exactly a friendly warning and completely devoid of emotional content, nonetheless it’s better than a warning shot. A firm called Voxtech makes a similar device called the Phraselator. Voxtech’ CEO says that one advantage of these portable translation devices is that they can be programmed by a local interpreter to fit different missions. That is, if a competent interpreter can be located. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has spent $15 to $20 million a year in government funds over the past five years developing the mobile translator technology, due to the shortage of humans with similar skills. There are many translation devices on the commercial market that work through Palm Pilots and other handheld devices. The type of usage the military is seeking, however, is a little more proactive. A platoon leader facing a village official doesn’t have time to go through a search process in order to find the correct phrase. On the other hand, these devices can’t really be programmed with the nuances required to get through a get-together designed to win the hearts and minds of the village elders. Often the few Arabic-speaking soldiers who did land in Iraq found that differences in dialect rendered their knowledge unusable. Think of the working class inhabitants of the American Deep South and British east London attempting to communicate successfully. Both are speaking “English,” but it’s highly unlikely either would understand the other in anything but the broadest of terms. In January, President Bush announced that the Pentagon will devote hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years to language training and, perhaps as important, training in cultural awareness. In the meantime, technology will have to fill in. Technological Solutions To Military Language Barriers


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