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Jeremy Faludi, 3 May 05


You've seen text-based pocket translators. You may have even seen speech-to-speech pocket translators. But what if you're somewhere the popular European / North-Asian languages aren't spoken, and saying things other than "where's the museum"? What if, for instance, you're doing tsunami-relief in Sri Lanka? Or helping Somalian refugees?

Phraselator is what you need, then. Like other speech-to-speech translators,the user can either speak a phrase in English or select it from various conceptually-grouped lists, and the PDA-size device will then speak the equivalent phrase in the selected language. Available languages and phrases are stored on compact flash cards, which can be swapped out for different ones tailored for various situations. The device was originally developed for military field hospitals where doctors also care for wounded locals, but it has since been expanded with modules like "basic aircrew", "basic Somali survival", "disaster relief", and "basic military interview" (i.e. interrogation), "traffic law enforcement", and many others. Better yet, they can also provide you the tools to make your own translation modules. The device is also a good deal more rugged than the sort of thing you'd take vacationing in France.

Though the Phraselators you can buy now only offer one-way translation, a two-way translator is already being prototyped and field-tested. has a good article on the device, and how it has been used by American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. It looks like the product's development is headed more towards military and law-eforcement action rather than civilian relief action, but time will tell.

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Can these be adapted to educational uses? Teaching basic literacy as well as foreign languages?

Posted by: gmoke on 3 May 05

I am being insanely knitpicky, but it'd be 'indíqueme'. Christ, it doesn't even matter.

Posted by: livingfossil on 3 May 05

On a trip to Europe I found that almost everyone could speak at least two languages, often three and sometimes four.

If the US would drop its ethnocentrism, maybe we wouldn't need this thing.

Posted by: Paul on 4 May 05

There was this comment I wrote about "passive competence" ... understanding each others language. I wonder what has happened to that project.

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 4 May 05

Excellent piece of software! Something like that would sure be useful in my country, Bolivia where we have three oficial languages and at least 30 more which are spoken around the country.

Posted by: Bernardo Sanchez on 4 May 05

Sure would be great for doing international business. Talk about breaking down barriers!

Posted by: Justin on 5 May 05

From the New York Times Magazine's "Best Ideas" issue last year:

By Robert Mackey

New York Times Magazine
December 12, 2004

No Americans suffer more from their inability to understand, or make themselves understood by, non-English speakers than America’s soldiers in Iraq. That’s why this year the Pentagon equipped thousands of them with the Phraselator, a hand-held electronic gadget that allows the soldiers to deliver hundreds of useful phrases, prerecorded in Arabic, to the Iraqis they encounter.

The device, which looks like an oversize Palm Pilot with a speaker and a microphone on top, breaks into Arabic when it hears an equivalent phrase in English spoken by a user whose voice it recognizes. Like an electronic parrot, the Phraselator may not be much of a conversationalist and can lack charm -- sample phrases include “Not a step farther,” “Put your hands on the wall,” and “Everyone stop talking” -- but its boosters claim that because the phrases are prerecorded by native speakers and not computer-generated, the monologues have “a more natural feel.” The Phraselator is marketed as “a complete solution for cross-cultural awareness.”

Its creators at the Pentagon-financed company VoxTec admit that even the new model, the P2, has a drawback: it is still just a “one-way” translation device. In other words, it phraselates perfectly well from English into Arabic (or any of the 59 other “target languages” it has mastered so far), but the device is no better at understanding foreign languages than the Americans who are wielding it. So the Phraselator allows occupiers to issue commands, but it does not help them comprehend any of what the occupied may have to say in response.

Despite this limitation, VoxTec is planning to roll out a consumer version soon, so it won’t be long before American tourists will be able to make demands and deliver orders in foreign languages without having to learn a single word of them.

Posted by: Wm. on 5 May 05



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