MENLO PARK, Calif.—A frustrated U.S. soldier urgently asks an Iraqi villager about insurgent attacks. The Iraqi responds, but is anxious and reserved. A translator tries to bridge the language gap, but his translation might be tainted by own agenda or bias.
This scenario plays out in Iraq hundreds of times a day.
Now a new translation device, using the latest advances in speech technology, may prevent some of the miscommunications and misunderstandings that have hampered U.S. efforts, and even save some lives.
The "Iraqcomm," developed by Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, allows an American and an Iraqi—neither speaking the other's language—to hold a basic conversation, with only a few seconds of delay back and forth.
"We've heard from returning military personnel that the language barrier is one of the biggest problems in Iraq," said Kristen Precoda, director of the nonprofit institute's speech technology and research lab that developed the device.
"And there just aren't enough translators to go around," she added.
At a demonstration, Precoda spoke into a microphone, asking in English a series of questions about security and services in a village. The software translates the spoken word into displayed text on a screen, then a module "speaks" it in Iraqi Arabic.
An Iraqi who worked on the project, Huda Jameel of Pleasanton, Calif., hears the question, responds in Arabic, sees a text version of her response on the screen, then hears the English version.
If there's a glitch, either participant can make a correction in the text before it is spoken.
The system is not foolproof.
Jameel noticed that the Arabic word for "worker" was translated into "Amman," as in the capital of Jordan, because the word for each sounds similar. She quickly corrected it, but that's because she knows both languages.
There are 32 Iraqcomm prototypes in the field already, and Precoda said they are getting positive feedback from military personnel. SRI developed the device in about one year under contract with the Defense Department, which wants more units.
The system has a vocabulary of 40,000 English and 50,000 Arabic words, with many security and medical terms, and comes in a "fully ruggedized" device smaller than many laptops. It's designed for use at checkpoints, one-on-one interviews and interrogations, and in medical emergencies.
Lengthy, complicated discussions would be difficult on the Iraqcomm, but its speech-to-speech technology is much more advanced than the Phraselator. That one-way device, also developed by SRI, allowed soldiers to translate a few English expressions into Pashto or Dari, and was used in Afghanistan.
The Iraqcomm could alleviate some of the urgent need for good translators. Many have been targeted and killed for working for U.S. soldiers, contractors and journalists.
Jameel recalled how an Iraqi translator and friend, Allan Enwiyah, was killed in January by insurgents when they kidnapped Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter working for The Christian Science Monitor.
"I'm hoping this will save some lives," Jameel said.
One veteran of the Iraq war, Lt. Col. Thomas Purple of the Illinois National Guard, said the translation device would be "very helpful" in dealing with Iraqis who want to provide tips and other information.
"Right now everything depends on the level of trust you have developed with a translator," said Purple, who served a year in Iraq.
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