A hand-held translator is boon to GIs in Iraq

Phrases: An Annapolis company's hand-held translator is helping troops struggling to communicate in Iraq and Afghanistan.

High Tech Warfare

May 18, 2004|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Near Iraq's border with Kuwait, Sean P. Collins, a Special Forces team sergeant, met a group of children and asked them if they had seen the enemy.

He spoke into a hand-held black box, called the Phraselator, which translated his English into Arabic and broadcast it clearly through a speaker.

The children pointed to a weapons cache, which included a mortar tube that was ready to be used and rocket-propelled grenades, which Collins destroyed.

"Finding the weapons cache with the kids ... never would have happened if I didn't pull out the unit," said Collins, who noted that several military teams had previously passed through the area without detecting the weapons. "It is an excellent device; there is nothing else like it."

VoxTec, the Annapolis maker of the Phraselator, is counting on testimonials like Collins' to make the high-tech translation device popular enough to be close at hand for U.S. troops around the world.

The Defense Department has already ordered about 2,000 units, which sell for about $2,300 each. That's on top of 1,000 test units sold in 2002 for use in Afghanistan, said Ace J. Sarich, VoxTec's founder and a former Navy SEAL.

He hopes to sell another 3,000 by the end of the year, most of them to the military. But he sees a growing market in law enforcement and hospitals where the unit could be used by police officers and physicians, nurses and emergency medical specialists to communicate with non-English speakers. He also plans to design a slimmer version for tourists that would sell for about $500.

"We are aggressively expanding," said Sarich, 60. "Now we are ready to pound our swords into plowshares and take a military technology and make it ready for the population as a whole."

The Phraselator P2, VoxTec's latest version, uses memory cards that contain nearly 60 languages and 15,000 phrases in a library that can be customized depending on a client's needs. The units acquired by the military translate simple English commands and questions into Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Dari.

It's another example of how the military has gone high-tech from laser-guided bombs and unmanned drones to night vision goggles and dog tags that help planes and tanks identify friendly forces.

"I am very impressed," said Gay Kendall, a science adviser assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps.

She has purchased 20 machines in the past six months and hopes to order another 40.

`Easy to use'

"I think they are easy to use, a little bit of time spent with one you can pick it up very quickly," Kendall said. "Ideally, we would have all our soldiers better trained in languages ... but until that happens, certainly devices like this have a role in the military."

Sarich expects VoxTec, which has 13 employees and is a division of Marine Acoustics Inc., a government contractor in Middletown, R.I., to have sales of $10 million this year and possibly four times that in 2005.

Experts are not surprised there is demand for a one-way translator.

"My general impression is there is a huge market for devices that make translation on-the-go easier," said Wade Roush, senior editor at Technology Review magazine, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It does sound like there is promise there."

The Phraselator, which is about the size of a hand-held video camera, contains a built-in speaker and has weatherproof buttons and screen.

VoxTec arranges common phrases into groups, such as vehicle search, crowd control and medical emergency. Phrases include: "May I search your vehicle?" "Please get medical help," and, "Show me your photo I.D."

The company hired linguists native to the Middle East to record the phrases that are being used by the military. An operator simply speaks the pre-programmed phrase into the Phraselator, or scrolls to the phrase they want to communicate and it is broadcast in the selected language.

Collins, the Special Forces sergeant, used the system in Iraq and Afghanistan to help sick and injured people, and when he was in villages and didn't have a translator.

"You would say, `Hello' into the Phraselator and they would recognize their language, and say, `Oh.' You would talk a little more," Collins said. "It built instant rapport when you spoke into it. It made it obvious that your were willing to learn their language."

Collins met Sarich in early 2002 at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan waiting to catch a flight to Kandahar. Sarich, he said, was sitting in the dirt looking "dusty" in his Navy SEAL shirt. The two began talking and Sarich gave him a card and demonstration.

Collins was impressed and said, "Dude, I need some of these." Sarich sent him 20 Phraselators, which were crude compared with today's version.

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