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A New Thrust

The locus of this cultural change-and shift in technology strategy-is several floors of an inconspicuous office building in downtown Washington, not far from the FBI’s headquarters. This is the seat of the National Virtual Translation Center, a new federal office, created by the USA Patriot Act in 2001 but only funded in 2003. Its budget is secret, and last fall, most of its brand new cubicles stood empty. In one room, boxes that once held Dell computer monitors were stacked against a wall; in another room, Russian, Arabic, and Swahili dictionaries were still shrink-wrapped.

But the humdrum setting belies the center’s pivotal role in transforming the U.S. government’s approach to translation and analysis. It will act as the hub of a translation web serving all federal intelligence agencies. This year it’s in the process of hiring perhaps 300 in-house linguists, but more significantly, over the next three to five years it will link tens of thousands of government linguists and private contractors via secure network connections of a type already used by the FBI and the CIA.

Its basic operating idea-break down bureaucratic walls and keep human translators at the center of the enterprise-stands in contrast to the government’s traditional approach to the translation problem. Since the late 1940s, the U.S. government and its research agencies have spent huge sums trying to build the ultimate spy computer, which would automatically translate any sentence in any language, whether spoken or written, into graceful English. These efforts have provided some limited tools but haven’t delivered on the larger vision. Computers simply aren’t very effective at decoding language complexities that humans easily interpret.

The new translation center represents a major shift in the kinds of translation technologies that the government seeks to develop. In essence, the dream of universal machine translation is being pushed aside, in favor of a fresh thrust-one in which a variety of tools are developed, not to replace humans, but to assist them. “It’s a model for how the government will deal with foreign language in the 21st century,” says William Rivers, the assistant research director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland.

For example, say Rivers and others, forget about software that can translate printed Arabic: analysts would benefit enormously if software could simply make Arabic writing easier to read, so that recovered documents could be more efficiently processed. “The government is appallingly behind on computer-assisted translation, because they’ve invested all this money on machine translation,” says Kevin Hendzel, a former Russian linguist for the White House and now chief operating officer at Aset International Services, a translation agency in Arlington, VA.

For some old language hands, the new center is the realization of a long-held vision. “Ever since the 1970s, when the first PCs became available online, we’ve thought about how to link inexperienced translators to online dictionaries and expert assistance,” says Glenn Nordin, a language intelligence official at the Department of Defense. “The [National Virtual Translation Center] is a dream of 20 years come true.”

If it works, the center will tie together emerging translation-assistance technologies and deploy them efficiently on a massive scale. Administered from the DC offices, the translation web will also leverage the skills of people spread all over the U.S.: professors, contract translators, government linguists-greenhorn 20-somethings and retirees alike. “I can still reach the government [linguist] who has retired to Pocatello, Idaho, so we don’t lose those skills out the door,” says Jordan, who is the center’s new director. “Right now, that’s our only option.”


A Translation Web for National Security
The new National Virtual Translation Center aims to rapidly process foreign-language intelligence by forming a secure communications network and providing assistance technologies to human translators. In this hypothetical example, documents captured in Afghanistan are processed with the help of technologies from scanning software to shared databases of translated phrases.


1. U.S. operatives capture a box of waterlogged documents in Kabul, Afghanistan, and use next-generation scanning software to digitize them. The digitized documents are sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.
2. Faced with an overload, the Defense Intelligence Agency  farms the job to the National Virtual Translation Center in Washington, DC. There, analysts use advanced software to flag important names and terms.
3. Most of the documents are free of ominous language, but one contains the word “fermenter.” The center forwards this document to a retired Arabic translator with bioweapons expertise living in Idaho.
4. The Idaho translator does a partial translation using databases called translation memories that store common phrases. He determines that the document discusses pharmaceuticals and does not indicate a threat.


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