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Nigerien, Malian soldiers aid U.S. Army's language-translation technology

Article abstract: ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Dec. 2, 2015) -- The U.S. Army is testing and upgrading a language-translation program by training with African soldiers, officials said.

Recording foreign Soldiers' speech and providing the data to Army researchers is key to improving the technology, said Maj. Eddie Strimel and Bill Bergen, the Field Assistance in Science and Technology, or FAST, advisors assigned to U.S. Army Africa. Capturing French accents and dialects from across Africa helps scientists refine the translation software.

The FAST team recorded 1,664 lines of speech from 20 Nigerien soldiers during the Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course - Africa in Niamey, Niger, Oct. 26-30. They used the SQ.410 Translation System, a handheld, rugged, two-way language-translation device from a commercial vendor, VoxTec.

The effort is part of U.S. Army Africa's African Horizon strategy to build partnerships across the continent to achieve mutual security objectives.

Link to full article here.

InterpretAmerica's Take: Technological innovation often occurs on the military front and then disseminates to broader society. Our kitchen microwave, utility drawer duct tape, anything with GPS capabilities and the computer are all examples of technologies inextricably woven into modern society that were invented by the military. This week's Interpreting the News points to innovation in speech-to-speech machine translation in the military theatre that may someday have a big impact in civilian society.

We've posted many articles about how the race to create credible, acurrate speech-to-speech machine translation is afoot - yet still a long ways off. We stand by that assessment. What is interesting about the technology being tested in Africa is its focus on training machines to recognize dialects and regional variations in one of the world's main languages: French. As the article points out, there are more than 2,100 languages spoken on the African continent. Language barriers are a key issue to address for countries trying to field multinational peace-keeping forces. How are they to collaborate if they cannot communicate? The use of human interpreters in conflict zones still produces superior results. However, as has been made abundantly clear after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and elsewhere, the interpreters who are left behind and left to fend for themselves not only lose their livelyhood but often their lives as well.  

According to the article, "The FAST team's objective is to record speech samples from each of Africa's five regions during the next year to capture the different dialects." If they are successful, imagine the practical applications that could one day make their way into civilian society if Siri (or Cortana and Google Now) could actually recognize all accents (both native and foreign) across major languages, as well as rare languages? Of course, the more accurate speech-to-speech machine translation gets, the more ready the we must be to face the inevitable changes that will pose for the interpreting profession. 


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