Translation technology | 11.01.2010

Police, Camera, Translation!

In recent years, police departments and emergency services in the United States have been using handheld translation machines in a drive to enhance communication with non-English speakers. In December 2009, the Cincinnati City Council was in the news for its partnership with Latino Educational Assimilation Resource Network, Inc. – a non-profit organisation providing English/Spanish bilingual material to the department to help bridge the language divide with the population’s growing number of Spanish speakers. Hand-held translation machines, bilingual dictionaries, language tapes and medical books for healthcare professionals are just some examples of the language material made available. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 18 per cent of the American population speak a language other than English in the home: there are over 30 million speakers of Spanish, 2 million of Chinese and 700,000 of Russian. Overcoming the language barrier has never been so important in today’s multicultural society.

The ‘talking translators’ as they have been dubbed, are a welcome accessory for the police, emergency workers and healthcare professionals alike. The device costs $1,200 but is priceless if it means that lives could be saved or potentially volatile situations brought about by lack of communication are diffused. It comprises a series of pre-programmed texts which when selected are output in audio format. There is also a loudspeaker function to broadcast the translated message free from distortion and within a range of 1 km. The user selects the desired text in English such as the Miranda warning to advise a person of their rights for example, and the foreign-language equivalent is relayed. Unfortunately, it does not allow for two-way communication as there is no real-time translation programme, however, there is a ‘record’ facility which enables responses to be translated at a later date.

According to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) have been using a similar device called the Phraselator® since 2007 and it has become an invaluable tool for law enforcement officers as there are 224 languages spoken in the city. The impetus behind using such a translation tool stemmed from miscommunication and subsequent mismanagement of the MacArthur Park peaceful immigration procession in May 2007 which resulted in injuries to 250 protesters and journalists, and 18 police officers. Over $13 million in compensation was paid out by the LAPD as a result of the infamous incident. Taking into consideration the economic repercussions from such an event, the Phraselator®’s $2,500 price tag at that time would have seemed cheap in comparison.

The Phraselator® is manufactured by Voxtec, and was initially designed for use by US military personnel. According to the manufacturer’s website, the most current model – the Voxtec Phraselator® P2 – is the ‘most powerful one-way, handheld, speech-to-speech translation system available today’ and aids the ‘tactical and humanitarian needs’ of service personnel in war-torn societies and humanitarian fields.

There are other translation tools which are also penetrating the market such as the software developed by Florida-based company Vcom3D, and DARPA (the research and development office for the U.S. Department of Defence).

Vcom3D’s military products include the Vcommunicator® language software, which is compatible with the Apple iPod. It functions by selecting an English phrase which is then converted into the desired foreign-language equivalent and communicated via a computer-animated 3D character incorporating culture-specific gestures. It is lightweight and discreet, robust, relatively cheap in terms of large-scale distribution and requires less training as troops are already familiar with iPods.

For two-way translation systems, DARPA’s work in progress is the Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use (TRANSTAC). The DARPA website lists TRANSTAC’s objectives as enabling spontaneous communication in ‘real-world tactical situations’, being speaker-independent, utilizing an intuitive interface for ease-of-use, adapting easily and quickly to ambient noise and change of speaker, and being able to support new languages with a turnaround time of less than 100 days.

Language technology does not claim to be free from error and there is no disputing the importance of human translators and interpreters. But with reports of deaths of linguists in conflict zones on the increase (both in the field and also through targeted attacks because of their links with foreign troops), the innovations on the market today are rapidly becoming indispensable not only for peacekeeping operations, but for medical professionals, law enforcers and emergency personnel worldwide.


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