Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
DARPA and Darmok, Act 1
April 26, 2011 - By: - In: Machine Translation - Comments Off on DARPA and Darmok, Act 1

DARPA, as in your tax dollars at skunkworks (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and Darmok, of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” that Star Trek: TNG episode beloved by human  translators where Captain Picard experiences a translation fail when his hand-held trips up over the latest alien language. (Metaphor problems). So if they are having trouble in the 24th Century, you can only imagine how bad it is here in the 21st.

DARPA’s burn rate for universal translation technology is around $50 million a year, small change for Star Fleet, but that is a lot of pie in the sky. (I wish I had my slice, but I’m in the human translation business.) Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman has been following the spend in Danger Room.

“As Danger Room first reported in February, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers are asking Congress to fund three major pushes for developing a universal translation device. Darpa’s projects admittedly sound cool. BOLT, the Boundless Operational Language Translation, will be so sophisticated it can understand foreign slang. Robust Automatic Translation of Speech — yes, RATS — will know the difference between speech that needs translating and background noise to discard. MADCAT is a mobile document reader that translates text.”

This has been going on for years. During the Iraq invasion, the Marines had these Humvees that were equipped with scanners and machine translation computers ready to start intelligence gathering before the Baathist coffee turned cold. It was all over the news at the time. But according to my source, they were never used. The activation keys for the software were never fired up. Those babies were strictly for ops of the photo kind.

We can hope that the grunts will get more translation mileage out of RATS, BOLT and MADCAT than those marines who had to give up the back seat of their Humvees for some translation paperweights, but the problem now is that the soldiers are there and these tools are not.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, SpeechTrans, an iPhone App that integrates Nuance voice recognition software with an MT engine, is good to go soon as they add Pashtu and Dari among other languages spoken in Afghanistan.

“It would be a great match for our military,” said CEO John Frei, who compared it to the universal translator used on television’s Star Trek. It already would come in handy to service members deployed across Europe, but the ultimate goal is to add languages that troops need in current combat zones, he said.

SpeechTrans works with voice or text. A user can speak or type a phrase and have it repeated through audio or text in another language. Its developers say it is more than 90 percent accurate, posts Eric Beidel in National Defense Magazine. And only $19.95.

Hell, if it says so in the press release, it must be true. Time to kick the tires on this app out on the TranslationGuy Torture Test Track, or whatever I called it. I reckon I could save the gov’mint a heap of money, and get a couple of posts out of it to boot. So long for now. See you at the track!

Your essay assignment: In 100 words or less, are smart phones smart for the US Army translation?

More on military smart phones in Defense Industry Daily.

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