Lost in Translation

Language translation technology may not be ready for prime time.

by / June 27, 2005
As the U.S. population becomes more diverse and the number of non-English speaking residents grows, the more difficult communication between local law enforcement and residents become.

This January, two handheld voice translation devices -- the Phraselator developed by VoxTec, and the Voice Response Translator (VRT) developed by Integrated Wave Technologies -- were tested by the Chula Vista, Calif., Police Department in conjunction with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego.

"The mission was to do a field test with this equipment with a local law enforcement agency and survey that agency for the practicality of voice translation devices," said Chula Vista Police Lt. Tom Leonard, who served as a Navy SEAL with the Phraselator's engineer and designer. "They said they were interested in getting some feedback from law enforcement."

When Leonard discovered SPAWAR was looking for a local agency to test voice translation technology, he volunteered the Chula Vista Police Department, offering to test the Phraselator and the VRT.

The units contain interchangeable computer chips loaded with phrases from different languages, such as "Stop, or I'll shoot!" "May I help you?" and "Are you in pain?" The devices tested by the Chula Vista Police Department included more than 1,000 phrases from five different languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.

The translators offer a menu from which users select a phrase and language with a stylus. The device then speaks the phrase in the chosen language.

The translators' architecture permits users to select new dialects and languages easily, so a police officer can insert the proper computer chip before entering an area with a predominant language.


A Glimmer of Light
The test period in Chula Vista lasted two months -- vendors representing both devices spent a day in Chula Vista to train police personnel, and 14 officers and civilian personnel tested each of the two units for a month at a time.

The devices are tough, having been designed for the military. The Phraselator is the largest at 7 inches long and 5 inches wide. Response time for the VRT is about one second, whereas it takes the Phraselator four to six seconds to respond. The VRT runs on a proprietary system and the Phraselator runs on Windows.

Leonard said law enforcement is thrilled with the idea of a language translation device, but so far, they fall short of the mark.

The equipment has potential, he said, and showed it could come in handy in certain instances, such as when a Korean citizen who didn't speak English needed directions.

"Using the Phraselator, the officer was able to give an explanation using the phrases loaded into the device," Leonard said. "The person left smiling. There was a glimmer of light there."

The Phraselator comes with a colored chart containing hundreds of icons and images, such as weapons, vehicles, different images of people -- large people, small people, bearded people and so on. It helps enhance communication between the officer and the non-English speaking subject. The images match the phrases programmed into the device, and the officer can point to an image as he reads a phrase from the Phraselator.

For example, in asking a non-English speaking witness whether a suspect had a gun, an officer could point to the picture of a gun on the chart and then program the Phraselator to verbalize "gun" to the individual.

"You're getting some information back from the person that doesn't speak the language, and we're learning something from this person," Leonard said. "Also, we're offering a limited service to that person that we didn't have previously."


Unrealized Expectations
One problem with the devices, according to Leonard, is that non-English speaking people expect communication the device can't deliver. The devices create only one-way communication between the officer and the non-English speaking individual.

The device needs to translate the subject's words spoken to the officer -- two-way communication.

"The one-way communication could be helpful, but it creates an expectation on the part of the non-English speaking person that somehow they can talk right back to the device and we're going to understand, so there's an awkwardness," Leonard said. "Ultimately, by the time our people had gone through it, all of our users and testers said it's not ready for law enforcement in its current state."

The devices are not difficult to learn, but training must be available.

"If you were to pick one up right now, without training, you might be stumped," Leonard said. The problem, he said, is learning the technical jargon of the device. "They don't call them 'languages,' they call them 'domains' for instance."

The military regularly confronts the same problem while on foreign soil, which is why voice translator technologies are being developed and tested. In 2002, the National Institute of Justice asked the Naval Air Systems Command's (NAVAIR) Training Systems Division in Orlando, Fla., to test three such handheld devices, 500 of which were shipped that year to Afghanistan so peacekeeping troops could communicate in Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Dari.

"The recommendation from NAVAIR to the vendors was to keep working on this," he said. "This is a good idea. It's just not ready for prime time."

The tests done by NAVAIR in 2002 concluded that of the three (a device known as the Universal Translator manufactured by Etaco was tested as well), the VRT was the easiest to use and had the fastest response time. The Universal Translator's response time ran approximately three or four seconds. One problem with the VRT was that if the user realized the translation was incorrect, it wasn't possible to stop the unit before it finished with its response -- and this costs time. The VRT had the longest battery life and was the only one with hands-free capability.

The Nashville, Tenn., Police Department also tested the VRT -- the first device the department tested that performed reasonably well, according to former Capt. Ken Pence. The unit worked with high background noise when other devices failed.

These language translators are new, but continued development could lead to a device that law enforcement could really use, along with more people in law enforcement who speak multiple languages.

"The beautiful thing is when we think a little further into voice translator technology, we are very hopeful they will continue to develop this to where it truly becomes two-way," Leonard said.

When that happens, he said, the tool, combined with more skilled human translators, will make the job of law enforcement much easier in the age of increasing language barriers.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor