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DARPA, NIST Collaborate on Avant-Garde Translation Technology

The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Defense are working together on an cutting-edge voice-translation technology designed to enhance communication between the U.S. military and non-English speakers in Afghanistan.

Called TRANSTAC, the DARPA project currently focuses on Pashto, but NIST has also assessed machine translation systems for Dari and Iraqi Arabic.

According to project manager Craig Schlenoff, all new TRANSTAC systems all work the same way. When an English speaker speaks into the phone, automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign-language speaker.

Traditionally, the military has used human translators for communicating with non-English speakers in foreign countries, but the job is dangerous and there is often a shortage of skilled translators. And, sometimes, translators may have ulterior motives, according to NIST’s Brian Weiss.

NIST researchers worked on the project for four years and held focus groups to determine critical communication interactions to simulate and evaluate in tests. The research team then devised 25 scenarios for evaluating the performance of translation devices, including vehicle checkpoints; communication of key information; facility inspections; medical assessments; and Afghani-U.S. military training exercises. Marines experienced in these tasks and native Kandahari-dialect Pashto speakers acted out the scenarios without a script. Each scenario was performed using the three industry-developed translation devices.

On-site judges observed the scenarios for each test, and the participating Marines and Pashto speakers were surveyed about the ease of interaction with the systems. A separate panel of judges fluent in English and Pashto later watched videos of the exercise and evaluated each of the three systems in terms how accurately concepts were communicated in both languages, Schlenoff said.

“We are writing a detailed assessment of the evaluation for DARPA so they can make an informed decision to determine where to direct funds and efforts in the TRANSTAC project,” he said.

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