AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Communication between people who speak different languages is an age-old challenge. Today, computer programs can translate words instantly but what about conversations that need translation, intense conversations where life or death could hang in the balance? Well, police, paramedics and other first responders increasingly encounter that kind of situation. And as Minnesota Public Radio's Conrad Wilson reports, there is new technology aimed at instantly bridging the language gap.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: A paramedic arrives at this scene: A screaming baby is badly burned, but the mother doesn't speak English and the medical staff can't communicate with her.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good evening.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi. I have a lady that speaks Arabic. We need to get some information on her baby.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ask her what exactly happened. What was the baby burned with?
WILSON: It turns out the baby was burned in a cooking accident.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK. Just let her know that I have a doctor that's with us right now. The gentleman in the gray shirt is a doctor and we're going to be transporting her and the baby to Children's Hospital. Let her know that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. (Foreign language spoken).
WILSON: That conversation was possible because of a device called ELSA: Enabling Language Service Anywhere. Using a cell phone signal, the handheld device gives users access to interpreters in about a minute who can translate between English and 180 other languages. The interpreters themselves work for a company called Language Line Solutions but the ELSA device is made by a Minnesota-based company created by this guy.
CHARLES HOWERTON: I'm Charles Howerton, the founder and VP of new business development for RTT Mobile.
WILSON: Howerton came up with the idea six years ago, after he struggled to communicate with Spanish-speaking workers at his construction company.
HOWERTON: I was able to build my first prototype and it has wires hanging out of it and radio board hanging out of it. Pretty rough looking but it actually worked very well.
WILSON: Since then, the device has become more sophisticated. Roughly the size of an old school cell phone, it has three buttons, built in microphones and a speaker.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Calling one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE TONES)
WILSON: Pushing a button once bring up a Spanish translator.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you for calling RTT Mobile Interpretation. Please hold while I connect you with your Spanish interpreter.
WILSON: About 30 seconds later, the interpreter's ready to translate from English to Spanish and from Spanish back to English.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi. This is Francine. I will be your Spanish interpreter. How can I help you?
WILSON: The ELSA translation tool was released in December. Howerton says it's already in use around the country.
HOWERTON: First responders, medical, police, fire - they're the ones that need to communicate the most.
WILSON: Law enforcement officers in St. Cloud, Minnesota recently started using the ELSA translation device. Sergeant Jason Burke works in training unit at the St. Cloud Police Department and says he's relied on bilingual officers and other translation services that required scheduling an appointment.
SERGEANT JASON BURKE: The difference is the immediacy of getting access to an interpreter.
WILSON: Burke says the new device fills that need. He says it was recently used when police and paramedics needed to deliver a baby, as well as during a domestic violence call.
BURKE: As years go on, in whatever community that you're in, you can see a lot more non-English speaking people moving into the community. It has been difficult in the past to be able to communicate with some people when you have contact with them through law enforcement.
WILSON: Burke says the main drawback is cost. The department has just a few for its entire patrol unit. And at $400 apiece, and up to $2 per minute to operate, a complicated police call can be quickly become expensive. Still, it appears those costs aren't slowing down business. According to the company, use of the ELSA device is growing - some months doubling in use. Now, Howerton says RTT Mobile is preparing to bring the device to the general public through a Kickstarter project this summer. Howerton says the funds will help pay for the next generation of the device that will make translation easier for everyone, not just first responders.
HOWERTON: Like me, and like I ran into on the construction site, you know, many times, I wasn't able to communicate with people that I needed to. It was just a lot of grief and headache and very time consuming.
WILSON: This part of the technology industry is full of innovation. Last year, Microsoft unveiled a vocal translation program. But by the company's own admission there are still errors - not something you want in a first responder situation. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson.
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