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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

New York Times
February 25, 2002

Speak Clearly, Soldier, And Carry A Spare Battery

By Andrew Zipern

Peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan will soon be relying on the sort of technology more often associated with wealthy American tourists than with the military.

In early March, a hand-held language translator developed by a former Navy Seal will be issued to more than 500 American soldiers in Afghanistan. The device, called the Phraselator, is encased in rugged weatherproof rubber, powered by a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery (or four AA alkaline batteries) and can translate more than 1,000 spoken English phrases with the press of a button.

Designed by John Sarich, a 20-year armed forces veteran who served as a Navy Seal in the Vietnam War, the device can instantly translate phrases like "I am here to help you" and "show me your identification" into Pashto, Urdu, Arabic or Dari. Users can also choose from a text menu of common phrases.

For example, Mr. Sarich said, "If you're a doctor, you can say, `stand up' or `where does it hurt?' and the device will speak the appropriate translated phrase" by playing a sound file of a native speaker.

Like the electronic translation devices that have been available to consumers the last few years, the Phraselator is not foolproof. It is a "one-way" system: it can understand spoken English, but it is of little use in translating other languages into English. So if an Afghan offers important information, American soldiers still need to figure out how to make sense of it.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, which devoted more than $1 million to the Phraselator's technology, is working toward a two-way system. "It's where we want to go," said Mr. Sarich, but "real two-way is probably 10 years in the future."

John E. Pike, a military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military policy Web site, said that despite its drawbacks, the device was likely to be a big improvement over the usual routine of soldiers' fumbling through phrase books. "It's obviously less effective than having an interpreter with you," Mr. Pike said, "but linguistic skills have never been a strong suit of the American military."

Its developers say that in most everyday encounters the Phraselator should work quite well. Unlike some consumer translation devices, the Phraselator translates words very quickly. Fast enough, Mr. Sarich said, to blurt out, "Stop, or I'll shoot" in time for it to make a difference.

Copyright 2002 / New York Times