The most important question about the new translation center remains: will it have a noticeable impact on the nation’s translation crisis? Some observers are skeptical. Robert David Steele, a former CIA officer who is now an intelligence community gadfly, puts it bluntly: “The FBI will fail because they lack the mindset to understand networks, translators without security clearances, and ad hoc contracting.” He predicts the center will join other grand federal efforts that proved to have dubious value (see “DC’s Digital Dysfunction,” sidebar). Meanwhile, other experts still see the future as lying in machine translation-and are working hard, often with government funding, to realize that vision. The new translation center “is the only way to go in the short run. But they may have to revisit that decision when technology overtakes it,” says Jaime Carbonell, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the chief scientific advisor for Meaningful Machines, a New York City startup developing machine translation products based on advanced statistical methods.
Whether or not automated computing tools overtake the more garden-variety helpers, though, the new center’s role should be key. And its efforts could have a number of payoffs. The translation assistance technologies shepherded by the center could improve the U.S. government’s ability to deal with information that’s written in non-Roman alphabets, which will speed visa applications, passport checks at borders, and even tax returns. They could also make translation by corporations cheaper and faster. For example, better optical character recognition means cost savings for companies that read forms, such as bank checks or standardized tests. Large organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations have huge stockpiles of multilingual documents they want to digitize and put online.