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Voice Recognition Technology in Iraq

Voice Recognition Technology in Iraq

April 2003

Editor: I saw an interesting article about a handheld device called a Phraselator being used by military personnel in Iraq to convert English phrases to Arabic or Kurdish. The device uses voice recognition technology and seems to require no training of individual voices. My guess is that this works because the device only recognizes and translates pre-identified phrases. Even so, it has the capability to translate hundreds or even thousands of phrases.

Is there an application here for people with hearing loss? It would be easy to output English text instead of Arabic or Kurdish speech. The question is whether there are applications where the ability to convert hundreds of spoken phrases to text might be important. Traffic stops? Emergency rooms? Other places where limited communication would be beneficial until more appropriate arrangements could be made?

Here are portions of the article from the Washington Times. The complete article is available at:


About 200 American and British military personnel in Iraq are communicating with the locals using a hand-held device into which soldiers speak English phrases to have them sounded out in either Arabic or Kurdish.

“It really helps calm a population when they can hear commands, questions, or information in their own language. … Unfortunately, interpreters are in short supply,” said Sheri Cranford, assistant to the vice president of VoxTec in Annapolis, the company that has developed the new communications system.

The device, called a Phraselator, is designed to help compensate for a shortage of linguists, and it already has proven its worth, Mrs. Cranford said.

“It’s been used to locate caches of weapons and to identify places where troops are hiding,” she said in a telephone interview. VoxTec is a division of Marine Acoustics, a Rhode Island-based military contractor. “We received funding to develop this device from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency right after 9/11, but it was being worked on well before then,” Mrs. Cranford said. She said the device has been used by Americans in Afghanistan for about a year to reach residents there in four different languages.

The Phraselator uses speech-recognition technology called Dynaspeak, developed by SRI International. This technology recognizes phrases phonetically and then emits the equivalent pre-recorded phrase in Arabic, Kurdish or another foreign language.

For those who fear there might not be an appropriate Arabic match for their English statement, Mrs. Cranford said, “we load 500 to 1,000 phrases [into the machine]. A 64-megabite flash card can hold 30,000 phrases.”

Kevin S. Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association, said it’s important to recognize that the Phraselator is “not a translation device … but a phrase matcher.”

“It’s not perfect. … Voice-recognition technology has its limits,” he said.

Mrs. Cranford said VoxTec will be coming out with a “commercial version” of the Phraselator later this year. Both emergency relief organizations and law-enforcement agencies are expressing interest, she said.

“Anyone who has to deal with a large number of non-English-speaking people will find it useful,” she said.

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