English to Arabic, Hands-Free

iwt_translator.JPGFour-and-a-half years after 9/11, only a teeny-tiny percentage of our troops speak Arabic. And despite advertised plans for increased language training, that's not going to change any time soon. In the meantime, the military is turning to technological fixes -- translator gadgets that let soldiers convey simple commands.The best known of these is probably the PDA-like Phraselator. Make a couple of stylus taps, or say a few words in English, and out comes an Arabic phrase. "It gets really funny looks from the Iraqis, but they think it's cool," one company commander tells me.But the Phraselator can be a bit of a pain, too. Because you have to hold the thing in your hands in order for it to work. And that makes it a lot harder to hold an M-16 at the same time.So Integrated Wave Technologies has come up with a translator that doesn't require any a hand to work. Talk English into a headset, and a ammo clip-sized speaker broadcasts out the Arabic equivalent. Check out this video for an example. You'll see, the translators aren't for carrying on conversation; they only interpret a few words at a time. But they seem to work well, when you're yelling at someone to get on the ground while your gun is pointed at his head. About 600 of the things are now in theater, according to the company.The next step, of course, is to make the translators two-way, so Iraqis can talk back to the soldiers. Integrated Wave Technologies has a Darpa contract to do just that -- one of several translation projects the Pentagon's way-out researh arm is funding.

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