BBN field tests portable translator

For local translators who assist U.S. troops operating in other countries, the necessity of earning a paycheck often trumps a fear of being killed in a combat encounter. However, a new technology could someday make that trade-off avoidable.

BBN Technologies has developed a translation device that enables a two-way dialogue between speakers of different languages. BBN’s TransTalk consists of a speech-recognition engine, a machine translation engine and a text-to-speech generation engine. When an English speaker talks into a microphone, TransTalk recognizes what is said and converts the speech into text. Then the machine translation engine translates the English text into foreign language text. Finally, the text-to-speech component produces an audio version of the translated text. The foreign language speaker responds, and the process produces English audio.

Current TransTalk language pairs include English/Iraqi Arabic, English/ Levantine Arabic and English/Farsi.
The translator comes in two forms. One is a full-featured version that runs on a laptop PC. The other version is for a handheld computer and has a more limited vocabulary.

Premkumar Natarajan, BBN vice president and lead scientist for speech and language technologies, said the company has been developing TransTalk during the past six years.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is evaluating TransTalk. BBN has also sent a few units to Iraq for field-testing.

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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