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Overcoming language barriers can be a matter of life or death in Iraq. Soldiers, medical personnel, and Iraqi citizens struggle to convey crucial information on a daily basis. While human translators are used in many situations, there simply aren’t enough who are willing to assist in every important conversation.

Last month, Menlo Park-based SRI International announced that it had deployed 32 Windows XP laptops loaded with advanced translation software for military evaluation in Iraq. The software, called IraqComm, facilitates an English-Arabic conversation by recording a person’s spoken words, translating them, and playing the translation in a matter of seconds.

IraqComm’s predecessor, Phraselator, is a handheld device loaded with phrases. The user selects an English phrase, and the device plays its translation in Iraqi Arabic, for instance. While useful, that system has drawbacks. The number of possible phrases is limited, and it can’t translate phrases into English, resulting in a conversation that relies heavily on gestures.

IraqComm, in contrast, can facilitate an impromptu, two-way conversation. A person speaks into a microphone and the words are collected and analyzed by speech-recognition software, called DynaSpeak, a system developed at SRI. The laptop screen then shows the phrase as the computer heard it. With a tap (of the “T” key), the phrase is spoken in the Iraqi Arabic. If the software has misheard some words, the speaker can choose from a list of other likely phrases, explains Kristin Precoda, director of the Speech Technology and Research (STAR) Laboratory at SRI and lead developer on the project.

Text can also be typed directly into the machine and translated; but the researchers believe the ability to translate speech will be particularly useful for soldiers, who need to keep their eyes on their surroundings. Translating spoken phrases also makes the system useful for telephone conversations.

After DynaSpeak converts the spoken words into text, software performs the translation. The software consists of two components, developed with the assistance of the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. The first module uses rule-based algorithms, explains Precoda, written to recognize specific rules of grammar and usage. They’re somewhat limited, however, because people use so many different words to convey ideas.

Thus, for more complicated sentences, the translation software turns to a type of algorithm that performs a kind of statistical analysis on the language. It works by assigning the likelihood that a word or phrase will follow another word or phrase, like a complicated version of predictive text messaging used on some mobile phones.

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