back to article Pentagon puts $44m into handheld translators

The US Navy is putting $44m-plus into "Phraselator®" Machine Based Language Translation tech, designed to overcome language barriers using "phrase recognition and generation" algorithms. The company providing Phraselator® is Voxtec, a small business qualifier based in Maryland. It says its software is a departure from …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Phraselator Glasgow?

    Any chance of a Phraselator for Glasgow? It seems those fellows have not grasped the nettle of the Queens English. You what'n'a what what? I see, down the road to the left purple monkey dishwasher or something

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Imaginary Weapon

    The Phraselator®, junk that it is, shows up fairly prominently in Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld by Sharon Weinberger ( A great book on how projects, no matter how stupid, take on a life of their own when they are not out in the open where other scientists and engineers can look at them critically. An especially humorous read for those of us who have worked on DARPA projects.

  3. Chris Goodchild


    Americans abroad always seem to be somewhat xenophobic and generally are even worse than the English at learning foreign languages, so the phraseolator is a real gift for them.

    Can you imagine a 6 foot plus marine in a flack jacket with an M16 complete with grenade launcher, pistol in his belt and assorted grenades hanging off his webbing, turning mirrored sunglasses toward you and pointing a thing that looks amazingly like a stun gun with Stephen Hawking's voice telling you to get off the street buddy in Arabic, winning many hearts and minds? Yeah they are over doing the lunches!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mars Attacks Visiting Hungarians

    The comedy quotient is extremely high here. I'm thinking rogue programmer, "alternative" foreign phrases in place of the correct ones and much ensuing hilarity, just prior to the inevitable shoot-out and embarrassing bloodbath.

  5. Stephen Stagg

    Open one up...

    And you'd find a babelfish wired up to a dolphin's brain.

  6. Chris

    Uh, sure.

    "It doesn't have to "learn" your voice or speech patterns to understand you. It instantly understands anyone who speaks English..."

    I'd have to see this to believe it (and trust me, I DON'T want to see it). Given the different accents of the various countries (and regions within countries) in the world, I find it literally impossible to believe that this device can accurately detect words in all accents.

    For example, how would it translate the phrase "back dat azz up"? How about the now-all-too-typical "Can I axe you a question?" What about the missing-R of Boston ("He pahked the cah in the yahd") or the why-is-it-there-R of Worcester (I sar the whole thing)? What about the extremely heavy accent of French Canadiens? There are a great many people that I can't even understand because of there accents. While I agree I certainly don't have the best aural recognition, to believe that this device can understand anyone just because they're speaking the English language is so illogical, you simply must be a government employee in order to believe it.

  7. Jach

    Holy cow

    I totally had a story idea for something similar. The government issues little "Subtitle" machines for everyone to wear, and they can just mumble and their machine picks up the speech, determines which languages are nearby, and translates accordingly before outputting to the screen. But then the machines start displaying different government-programmed things and no one notices but for a few observant people who still use their voice...

    It never got on more than a page of paper, of course, but still.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Universal Translator

    Another Star Trek science makes it into the real world.

    Combine this with a mobile phone and turn it into a badge and I think we are nearly there.

  9. Stuart Van Onselen


    Where would this be of the most use right now? Iraq, of course!

    But of course, if the troglodytic US Armed Forces high mucky-mucks weren't so damned homophobic, they would still have had dozens of actual human translators available to do this sort of thing.

    Sure, you can't pump out thousands of human translators out of an assembly line, but the ones you would have had (if only they hadn't been gay) would do a much better job than any automatic device available today or in the forseeable future.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Gay translators!?

    I can see it now..... a check point, disgruntled Iraqis queuing, a few solders dotted about and the gay guy in a bright pink t-shirt translating Arabic..... classic! Where did you get THAT shirt, it's to die for! Oopps! Im in the wrong country to say that....

  11. Stuart Van Onselen


    Anonymous Coward's surprise would indicate that he hadn't already heard about all the gay soldiers with useful language skills that have been discharged under the "don't ask don't tell" policy.

    Apparently the number is over 300, with 37 of these specifically being Arabic speakers.Ørd-on-repealing-dont-ask-dont-tell/

    But I agree that the scene he describes is hilarious. But as these translators were all service(wo)men, they don't get to pick their own wardrobe. :-)

  12. preethi

    It would make

    a very good Xmas gift for Dubya to have.

  13. Andy Bright

    Real World Testing

    There is a simple real-world test scenario that will accurately assess whether this box of tricks can translate simple phrases from "anyone who speaks English"; actually there are two.

    The first test is a bit unfair, but Geordies are widely thought to be speaking some form of English.

    The second is probably more useful. Have them call Dell tech support. If the contraption can accurately translate "Format your hard drive and re-install Windows" they've probably got a winner.

    The reason this is a great idea is not so much the guaranteed testing of "English with an accent" - but rather that the same test material will be delivered regardless of query posed to the person at the other end of the phone.

    I'm usually quite surprised by this innovative approach to repairing, say, Linux servers or network appliances, but it does allow for controlled testing using a single phrase.

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