OWEGO, N.Y. -- If U.S. troops soon storm into Iraq, they'll be counting on computerized language translators to help with everything from interrogating prisoners to locating chemical weapons caches.
Besides converting orders like "put your hands up" into spoken Arabic or Kurdish, military officials hope to enable quick translations of time-sensitive intelligence from some of the world's most difficult tongues -- normally a painstaking task.
"Should we, God forbid, go into Iraq, we'll have to ask 'Are there any chemicals here? Are there any facilities used to develop chemical or biological weapons?"' said Lt. Col. Kathy De Bolt, deputy director of the U.S. Army battle lab at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., which develops intelligence technology.
The devices, some already tested in the Balkans and Afghanistan, range from Palm-style handhelds that use English-language cues to play prerecorded foreign phrases, to a two-way voice translator developed partly at Lockheed Martin's Owego plant that allows speakers of English and Serbo-Croatian to hold a shaky conversation.
Army intelligence has also purchased 1,500 briefcase-sized document scanner-translators which allow U.S. personnel to make rough, on-the-spot translations of documents in Dari, Pashto and Arabic, said Melissa Holland of the U.S. Army Research Lab.
"The faster you can translate things the better," said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political science professor and former congressional and White House intelligence staffer.
Speed is critical when intelligence points to an impending attack, said Johnson, such as the National Security Agency's fateful intercept from Sept. 10, 2001 that reportedly stated "tomorrow is zero hour."
"It wasn't translated until Sept. 12th," Johnson said.
Machine translations, especially of spoken voice, have bedeviled intelligence agencies for decades. By the early 1960s, the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency were struggling to automate translations of Soviet media and intercepted communications, said intelligence expert and author James Bamford.
Today, the portable devices are one facet of a broad machine translation effort that combines private industry and universities with military, intelligence and police under the Language and Speech Exploitation Resources, or LASER, program overseen by De Bolt.
Automating translations remains one of the toughest challenges in computing -- especially conveying humor and irony. Universal voice translations that go beyond narrow military confines will take decades to perfect, De Bolt guesses.
Civilian software now produces understandable -- though often garbled -- translations of documents in such languages as French, German and Japanese. A few handheld voice translators have also emerged in the civilian market, such as those made by Ectaco.
For soldiers, needs are different.
Officials at the U.S. Special Forces Command say they hope improvements in the current Phraselator, the one-way handheld voice translator, will help coordinate U.S. efforts with foreign fighters.
The $2,000 machine converts from English and plays 200,000 recorded commands and questions in 30 languages including Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.
The Palm-sized machines can't understand the answers, so soldiers' questions -- spoken into the device -- must be framed for "yes" or "no" answers.
The Phraselator was rushed into production after the Sept. 11 attacks, with dozens of the 500 initial units reaching Afghanistan-based U.S. special forces by March, said Ace Sarich, who leads Phraselator development for Marine Acoustics Inc.
In Afghanistan, Phraselators are used to translate English statements across various domains, like medical diagnostics -- "where does it hurt" -- to military checkpoints -- "we must inspect your vehicle" -- to prisoner transport -- "get out of the car."
Sarich said his company is building 400 more, working with U.S. Special Forces to develop phrases that could be used in Iraq.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a two-way version of the Phraselator. De Bolt said a prototype -- which would translate English questions as well as foreign answers -- could be tested by 2004.
For now, the two-way Audio Voice Translation Guide System, also known as TONGUES, developed for Lockheed Martin by Carnegie Mellon University's language lab, appears to be the only device that converts speech back and forth between languages, said John Moody, a Lockheed engineer in charge of the project.
Lockheed tested two of the laptop machines in Croatia in April 2001 at the behest of Army chaplains who wanted help talking to refugees and dying patients.
Demonstrating the machine at Lockheed's Owego campus, Moody spoke into a phone handset plugged into the laptop, asking carefully "Are there any snipers?"
Seconds later, the machine's Serbo-Croatian speech synthesizer spat out a monotonic, Slavic phrase with the unmistakable word "snai-perr." Moody reconverted it to English, ending up with "Are there any sniper."
De Bolt said a similar two-way tool, called Speaking Minds, is also under development.
Another translator that could be used in Iraq, known as Talker 2, is like Phraselator except it can teach soldiers to speak the language itself.
In the case of an invasion of Iraq, a phrase translator could help save civilians' lives by easing the communication gap between locals and U.S. soldiers, said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.
"You get really worried that a bunch of scared American soldiers and a bunch of scared civilians won't be able to talk to each other," Pike said. "Anything they can do to get the civilian population out of harm's way would help minimize casualties."
On the Net:
Fort Huachuca battle lab: http://futures.hua.army.mil/bcbl
DARPA translation systems: http://www.darpa.mil/iao/Babylon.htm
Army Research Lab: http://www.arl.army.mil