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TONGUE IN CHECK

With Translation Technology On Their Side, Humans Can Finally Lick the Language Barrier

(Arthur E. Giron for The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009

The young American soldier recalled the time in Iraq he came across the badly burned little girl. He was on patrol. Trouble ahead. A house had been set on fire. In front of it was the girl, just standing there, all alone.

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There he stood, helplessly, in full battle rattle, with his ballistic glasses and helmet, his weapon bristling, his body armor making him waddle like a bipedal rhino.

He spoke no Arabic. He couldn't comfort her, he couldn't tell her he wanted to get her medical help.

"I sure wish I'd had one of those," he told Jennifer Gollob.

Gollob points to a machine that easily fits in a bag the size of a woman's purse. It's a universal translator. It is being tested in Iraq by DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- the legendary research and development works in Arlington where Gollob is a contractor.

The machine interprets the spoken word. You talk in English. It repeats whatever you said in spoken Iraqi Arabic. It then awaits a spoken response from the Iraqi, and talks back to you in English.

It's pretty good, says Mari Maeda, the program's manager. About 70 or 80 percent accurate. Not as good as a human. But the number of human interpreters willing to work around gunfire is finite.

DARPA is aiming to get an affordable iPod-size interpreter on the chest of every American warrior, foreshadowing the day such devices will be as common as music players.

Independently, Google is deploying its strikingly successful Translate project. It instantly translates text among 41 languages from Bulgarian to Hindi with surprising felicity. The big question is how soon Google will release a voice version, making the world's cellphones multilingual.

That sound you hear? It's the sound, after all these millennia, of the Tower of Babel rising once again.

* * *

On Jan. 7, 1954, IBM announced, with great fanfare: "Russian was translated into English by an electronic 'brain' today for the first time." Routine machine translation, we were told, was only five years away.


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