NIST replaces translators with smart phones

Tuesday - 7/27/2010, 7:05am EDT

Rachel Stevens
Federal News Radio

The persistent shortage of qualified translators is a serious problem facing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the National Institute of Science and Technology is working on a solution that makes a surprising use of smart phone technology.

NIST is currently testing a smart phone-based device that translates English to Afghani Pashto and back again. When an English speaker talks into the phone, speech recognition software records and translates the information. The device then reads the information back orally in the target language.

NIST scientists have spent the last four years researching and evaluating speech translation systems for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Previously, they used microphones and portable computers. But the new technology works on more wieldy devices and operates in real time.

The project is called TRANSTAC (spoken language communication and TRANSlation system for TACtical use). NIST says the goal is to provide a "technology-based solution" to the translator shortage problem.

Pashto is the program's current focus language, but work is also being done on Afghani Dari and Iraqi Arabic.

Rachel Stevens is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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