Chaplains test machine translation

Chaplains might not be the first people you'd think of as being on the cutting edge of information technology. But U.S. Army chaplains are among those pushing hardest for a mobile translation device that will enable speakers of different languages to hold a conversation.

As the Army takes on more peace-keeping and humanitarian missions, chaplains are increasingly being called upon to interact with native populations in Haiti, the Persian Gulf region, Bosnia and other nations. Military chaplains must be prepared to provide religious support for prisoners, lead negotiations with local civilian leaders and perform other tasks that require clear communications.

But chaplains can't be expected to be fluent in all of the languages they might encounter, and human translators are not always available. So the chaplaincy is going high-tech.

The Army experimented with a proto.typical machine translation system in Zagreb, Croatia, in April, and officials are considering whether to go ahead with production. The $600,000 project — the Audio Voice Translation Guide System, called Tongues — was led by Lockheed Martin Corp., with participation from Army and Carnegie Mellon University researchers. The prototypical device was a Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. mini-notebook computer with voice-recognition, translation and synthesizing software. The project was an attempt to determine whether the device could adequately translate English into Croatian and vice versa.

The system uses voice-recognition technology to convert speech into text that can then be verified for accuracy. Translation software converts the text into the required language, and a voice synthesizer "reads" the translated text aloud.

"It went well overall," said John Moody, research scientist at Lockheed Martin Systems Integration-Owego, based in Owego, N.Y. "People were pleased with the system and able to solve problems, even though they didn't speak each other's language."

The machine works best with simple sentences and yes-or-no questions, and requires some preparation. Users must first conduct general-purpose role-playing to provide the machine with examples of conversations they expect to have. Chaplains, for example, acted out common conversations they might have with Croats.

The device didn't work perfectly. In one instance, when asked whether they needed help, a Croatian response was translated as "Needs us food."

"The experimentation demonstrated that religious support would be enhanced through machine translation," said chaplain Maj. Mark Nordstrom, Tongues program manager. "The audio voice translator is an excellent beginning to this effort.... It is a bit more than a prototype, but not yet ready for production."

Nordstrom could not say whether the Army will eventually purchase the system, but he said the technology is promising.

"We are all working toward a handheld, wireless, real-time speech synthesizer able to draw upon numerous language databases for the purpose of supplementing translation efforts in the field," he said.

Lockheed Martin officials said that a variety of potential costumers have expressed an interest in the technology, including military police, special operations forces, the Defense Language Institute, the Army Signal School, the intelligence community and the Air Force. They also see potential commercial applications, such as for vehicles that will read e-mail to drivers and data.bases that will track shipments through several countries.

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