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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
US Army tests portable translator
The translator in action. Photo courtesy Ralf Brown
The translation was slow at times
US soldiers on peacekeeping duties in the future could find that a portable translation device will be an essential part of their equipment.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a prototype of a speech translator that was road-tested by US Army chaplains in Croatia.

"This project shows how a relatively simple speech-to-speech translation system can be rapidly and successfully constructed using today's tools," said the team from Carnegie Mellon University in a research paper published recently.

The research was commissioned by the US Army, which is increasingly finding itself in peace-keeping roles where communication is key.

Speaking in tongues

"In the Balkans, the Army is not just supposed to conquer somebody," Robert Frederking of Carnegie Mellon University told the BBC programme Go Digital.

US Army soldier in Bosnia
Translators could be essential for US soldiers
"In a peacekeeping situation, you have two guys trying to beat each other up and you are holding them apart.

"You can't just shoot one of them, you have to figure out what is going on and talk to them," he said.

The portable translator was developed within a year, using commercially available laptops.

The Army did not want to field-test the device in a battlefield situation. So instead the translator was tested by US Army chaplains in Croatia.

"The chaplains very often end up having to talk to foreign nationals and typically don't have any translation support," explained Dr Frederking.

Slow system

For the trials, the chaplains used the translator to speak to Croatians who knew just a smattering of English.

The system works by having a speech recogniser that picks up the words in Croatian, turns the speech into text. The written words are then translated into English and read out by a speech synthesizer.

"It went reasonably well half the time," said Dr Frederking, though it was slow in translating phrases.

The research team admit that the system is not ready to be deployed in the field.

But they say their trials showed that a portable translator could be made to work with further research and development.

The Audio Voice Translation Guide System project was a joint venture between the US Army, the military manufacturer Lockheed Martin and Carnegie Mellon University.

See also:

27 Aug 02 | Technology
12 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
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