Tech Solutions to Iraqi-U.S. Language Barrier Part of the daily struggle for soldiers and Marines in Iraq is communicating with civilians. Few military personnel have enough fluency with Iraqi Arabic to be easily understood, and translators are in short supply. But small, hand-held devices may help close that communications gap.

Tech Solutions to Iraqi-U.S. Language Barrier

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In Iraq, one of the many daily struggles for U.S. troops is communicating accurately with Iraqi civilians. As our tech contributor Xeni Jardin reports, a new device could help.

Unidentified Man: Keep kids back.

Voice Response Translator (VRT): Keep kids back.

VRT: (Speaking foreign language)

XENI JARDIN: What you're hearing is a handheld voice translator device that's used in combat.

Unidentified Man: Keep kids back.

VRT: Keep kids back.

VRT: (Speaking foreign language)

Captain MARK CASTELUCCI(ph) (Captain, U.S. Army): A number of people started gathering around to hang out and watch this gun fight.

JARDIN: Mark Castelucci is a captain in the U.S. Army and has spent the last seven years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He remembers one of the first times he used a handheld voice translator device in combat.

Captain CASTELUCCI: I was actually able to give them commands in their native tongue to say, look, back away, you're going to get hurt if you're around here. we don't have any food or water to give you. Everybody out here, you need to go and seek cover and stay out of our way. And if you don't you're going to be arrested. And it worked.

JARDIN: When the soldier says a simple phrase like keep kids back, the VRT, or Voice Response Translator, matches that cue to a more complex phrase. In this case...

VRT: Keep your children back from us or we will take action against you.

JARDIN: And the device spits out that longer phrase in any of 16 languages you choose. In our case: Iraqi-Arabic.

Unidentified Man: Soldier warning.

VRT: Soldier warning.

VRT: (Speaking Foreign Language)

VRT: U.S. military personnel are here to help, but we will kill anyone who is a threat to us.

JARDIN: Tim McCune is president of Integrated Wave Technologies, the makers of this device.

Mr. TIM MCCUNE (President, Integrated Wave Technologies): This removes pulling the trigger as the soldier's first option in dealing with foreign nationals. You know, this is something where, you know, if you eliminate misunderstandings, if you tell people what they need to do in order not to be a threat to our forces, or if you're able, you know, in medical situation, to get some information to help them, then you've done something positive.

JARDIN: Lieutenant Scott Ray(ph) of the U.S. Coast Guard has used the translator gadget while patrolling oil rigs at sea. It's a lot more effective than hand gestures or other crude means he's used to warn foreign craft away from a danger zone.

Lieutenant SCOTT RAY (U.S. Coast Guard): Sometimes we have to point, actually point our weapons at a ship to get their attention. So with the machine we're able to warn people and veer them off much earlier. It was much safer. And it accomplished the mission that we wanted to, versus having to get our ship close to a target that could potentially be someone that wanted to harm us.

Dr. MARI MAEDA (Researcher, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): It's very, very high on our list of things that we want to accomplish, as an agency.

JARDIN: Dr. Mari Maeda, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, says the government has spent 15 to $20 million a year over the past five years on this technology - there aren't enough human translators to go around.

Dr. MAEDA: We really want to reserve the translators to help us with more complex interactions with the Iraqis.

JARDIN: Critics say, instead, the Defense Department should instead spend its dollars training troops how to speak Arabic or other languages. But Captain Castelucci disagrees.

Capt. CASTELUCCI: No matter how hard we try to learn basic phrases in Arabic, we still sound like Westerners. So even though it sounds right to us when Middle Eastern people hear what we're saying, it doesn't always makes sense and they can't always understand it.

JARDIN: Captain Castelucci would argue that local Iraqi interpreters are also in short supply, and they're often targeted for cooperating with American forces. The advantage of these devices is they can be programmed by a local interpreter to fit different missions.

John Hall is president of Annapolis-based Voxtech International, which makes another device called the Phraselator. He says in this case, technology can help a unit make better use of one human interpreter.

Mr. JOHN HALL (President, Voxtech International): And if you do find someone who is conveying that yes, I do have some important information, you can then, you know, take control of that situation and bring the interpreter in. But you don't have to keep them there in potential harm's way all the time.

JARDIN: What soldiers really want are small, hands-free devices that translate speech in both directions, as people talk. Already, DARPA has some early prototypes, but they are at least a decade away from being combat-ready.

For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

BRAND: And you can hear what some common English command sound like translated into Iraqi-Arabic, just go to our Website,

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