Machine Foreign Language Translation Systems Bridge Gap Between Soldiers, Locals

[author type="author"]Brandon Pollachek[/author]

Obtaining information, providing assistance, and forging relationships are very tough to do when first meeting people, but are even tougher when you are in a combat environment and don’t speak the local language. That was the scenario many U.S. forces were faced with as they began to work with local citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide assistance, gain intelligence, and build situational awareness for force protection. There were few ways to communicate accurately, especially with a shortage of qualified linguists.

The initial solution was to field a quick reaction capability (QRC) that could meet the immediate need while a more robust program of record (POR) known as the Machine Foreign Language Translation System was being developed. The earliest devices used to bridge the language gap had prescripted words, phrases, and simple expressions such as “Get out of the car,” “What is your brother’s name?,” and “Do you have a bomb?” A Soldier could touch that phrase on the device and it would come out in the other language, letting the native speaker know what the Soldier wanted.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough linguists to go around, and not all of them can put on a rucksack and go up and down mountains in Afghanistan and follow troops around. So we have to fill that capability gap with these devices,” said Mike Beaulieu, Product Director Machine Foreign Language Translation Systems (PD MFLTS) within Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Sensors (PEO IEW&S).

QRC Solutions

The list of QRCs that were fielded includes the Foreign Media Monitoring (FMM) System, which offers real-time automatic machine translation, search, and alerting capability across multiple media and languages, providing rapid insight into emerging events. FMM allows for the correlation of open-source information and the development of intelligence products for strategic or tactical use. PD MFLTS also fielded a Translator Laptop System that provides a two-way, speech-to-speech machine translation capability; and the Voice Response Translator, which provides hands-free, eyes-free, and voice-activated one-way phrase-based capability. Additionally, the organization fielded the Phraselator P2, which provides voice- and touch-activated, one-way phrase-based capability.

[image align="right" caption="Machine foreign language translation systems are providing Soldiers in the field a greater ability to communicate with local populaces when linguists are not available. (U.S. Army photo.)" linkto="/web/wp-content/uploads/Translation.jpg" linktype="image"]“/web/wp-content/uploads/Translation.jpg” height=”167″width=”246″[/image]

PD MFLTS’ most recent activities included responding to an urgent operational needs request from theater for more than 100 two-way speech-to-speech devices that are housed on an Android-based smartphone. Early this year, the systems went to two battalions within the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division that are currently deployed to Afghanistan.

“Right now the systems are there on an operational assessment, and they will be there until the beginning of September. During this deployment, we will gather information to improve the product and to inform a decision as to how to do a follow-on product, because eventually we will have a theater-wide product out there,” Beaulieu said.

PD MFLTS worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Capability Manager Biometrics and Forensics to field systems that could meet the 101st’s needs. The unit wanted a two-way device that accepted free speech instead of being phrase-based. Additionally, the organization required a handheld device that would speak two of the main languages in Afghanistan, Pashtu, and Dari.

Building on Success

PD MFLTS will build on the success of previous versions of language translation systems and lessons learned from current efforts such as the smartphones fielded to the 101st, using the collected feedback to inform the POR. “The POR device is going to be software, but it could be that the software we provide is an application, and it resides on a smartphone that someone else owns, “said Beaulieu.

MFLTS will be designed to operate in several different configurations to include: a portable configuration (a handheld device), a mobile configuration such as a laptop, and a net-enabled configuration. Ultimately, there will be a configuration form factor that would allow people to talk one-on-one in the field.

Eventually MFLTS will offer Soldiers in the field a software capability that can translate any language needed and will be embedded in other major Army programs such as the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, Prophet Enhanced, and the U.S. Army Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Automated Reporting and Collection System, serving as the translation portion of those intelligence-gathering and analysis systems. In addition to having a speech-to-speech capability, the system will be able to perform text-to-text translation.

Looking to the future, Beaulieu reflected on the sheer potential of MFLTS. “It has been recognized that language and linguistic capabilities are one of the seven key cornerstones for success in the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, so this is pretty important stuff. If you can’t talk to the people that you are trying to win the hearts and minds of, it is kind of hard to win a counterinsurgency.”


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  • BRANDON POLLACHEK is the PEO IEW&S Public Affairs Officer, Fort Monmouth, NJ. He holds a B.S. in political science from Cazenovia College and has more than 10 years’ experience in writing about military systems.

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