Magazine article The Futurist

Translation by Machine: A Bridge across the Multicultural Gap; Growing Diversity Is a Challenge in Many U.S. Neighborhoods. Technologies for Overcoming Language Barriers Offer Hope for Facilitating Better Communication

Magazine article The Futurist

Translation by Machine: A Bridge across the Multicultural Gap; Growing Diversity Is a Challenge in Many U.S. Neighborhoods. Technologies for Overcoming Language Barriers Offer Hope for Facilitating Better Communication

Article excerpt

Currently, the best and most accurate translators are human beings, but machine translation devices are developing and improving rapidly. In fact, the U.S. military has tested and utilized first-generation translation devices such as VoxTec International's Phraselator in combat and similar field conditions. Starting in the late 1990s, some of the translation devices used by the military were handheld computers that would speak a text phrase selected by the user.

These text-to-speech devices were limited to the phrases already programmed into them. Phraselator, built on a PDA platform, now can translate 1,000 critical-need phrases into 40 languages. As handheld computers became more powerful with increased capacity, more-sophisticated software allowed the user to speak into a hardware device, which then transmitted a spoken translation out of a speaker.

The U.S. military found itself managing civilian populations in foreign cities, engaging non-English-speaking peoples in an effort to gain their trust and maintain order. This need is paralleled in increasingly multicultural U.S. cities, so transitioning this technology to civilian law enforcement is both necessary and inevitable. The U.S. government is experimenting with language translation technology through its Law Enforcement Analysis Facility and with technologies funded and developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). So far, such efforts have produced an early form of machine-based language translation: one-way text-to-speech and speech-to-speech devices.

As computer science and software development advance, machines are becoming less dependent upon human manipulation. In the future, two-way translation devices will process speech from one language to another, independent of human interaction. One such technology that shows promise is language translation via cell phone: When a caller speaks in one language to a listener speaking another, a computer intermediary along the speech path translates both languages. This technology is currently limited to English, German, and Japanese, with between 80% and 90% accuracy. The improvements for these devices are ongoing.

The most-advanced translation technologies now commercially available can speak and process predetermined phrases one-way: primarily English to a variety of languages. Although some optimistic private commercial enterprises expect to have some form of dynamic two-way machine translation available within a year or two, DARPA estimates that such a dynamic capability will not be readily available for about five years.

Translating for Communities

Two-way translation devices clearly could improve multilingual communication in public-safety applications, but the technologies are not here yet. The push for them may come from the communities that will benefit most. For example, the Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island (the state's largest Medicaid health plan) obtained $250,000 in grant funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to purchase Phraselators. The devices, which sell for $2,300 each, will be distributed to health-care providers and rescue workers throughout Rhode Island. The Oneida County Sheriff's Office in Oriskany, New York, is also experimenting with the Phraselator in its jail's medical screening process. The results are promising, and Oneida is seeking funding to purchase more Phraselators in the near future.

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As a law enforcement officer in California, I had spent most of my 26 years in the profession working in diverse communities and neighborhoods where Spanish, Hmong, Khmer (Cambodian), and Lao were the languages spoken. Although I had picked up a phrase or two, I was never proficient with the wide variety of languages in California's heartland. I often thought how great it would be to communicate effectively in so many languages, to understand and be understood by those seeking help from the police. …

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