Technology

The Latest App: Smartphone Interpreters


The iPhone and BlackBerry can now translate between Arabic and English. Can this foster better U.S.-Mideast relations?

Uncle Sam may soon get a little diplomatic help from the iPhone and BlackBerry. On June 30, an Egyptian company specializing in translation software released a tool designed to translate quickly between English and Arabic by way of a wireless device.

Cairo-based Sakhr Software introduced an application—downloadable to Apple's (AAPL) iPhone and Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry—that in seconds transmits an audio translation of a spoken phrase.

At the outset, Sakhr is pitching the software toward the U.S. intelligence community and the Defense Dept., which have lacked adequate Arabic language capabilities, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks. "What we are solving is a real-world problem," says Sakhr spokeswoman Tuyen Ho. "This product will help men and women in the armed forces and intelligence community bridge the communications gap. It will help keep them safer." The company declined to name customers but said it is talking with the Defense and Justice departments and various intelligence agencies.

Aiming at Businesses, Too

In recent months, U.S. government agencies have stepped up their reliance on cutting-edge tech tools for diplomatic means. The State Dept. in April arranged a delegation of executives from Google (GOOG), AT&T (T), Twitter, and other tech startups to journey to Iraq to meet with government officials, business leaders, and students to discuss ways to use tech across that country.

The software Sakhr released June 30 is also designed for use by businesses. Its debut coincides with Sakhr's acquisition of software maker Dial Directions for an undisclosed amount. The two companies collaborated on the app for a year, with Sakhr developing the language software and Dial Directions designing the mobile architecture. Sakhr plans to release a version for consumers in August.

Sakhr designed its software so that users concerned about the security of their transmissions can host conversations on their own servers and monitor and mine entries sent back by soldiers from the field. "The technology that Sakhr is using can extract and analyze keywords," Ho says. "You effectively can turn every soldier into an intelligence officer without them even knowing it." Sakhr said it would set pricing for the app and hosting subscription on a case-by-case basis.

The app comes at a time when demand for Arabic speakers by intelligence and the Defense Dept. outstretches supply. "Since 9/11 there has been a push to get Arabic speakers into the [CIA] but the problem is that with that language, you never get enough [Arabic speakers]," John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, says in a phone interview. "Unfortunately the intelligence community does not exist within a society that produces those skills."

A Word's Context Is Critical

A translation app is an imperfect fix, says MIT linguistics professor Edward Gibson. "Language is such an ambiguous thing," Gibson says. "For written—but even more so for spoken language—it's hard to imagine software that could really do this adequately. So much of language is based on context." Gibson has not himself tested the translation tool.

In hopes of overcoming these barriers, Sakhr's app uses a rules-based language system that judges meaning based on context. The software uses associated words and phrases, for instance, to distinguish between a "bank" where people deposit money and a "bank" along a river's edge. The company also plans to roll out more subject-specific versions, such as for the military or medical professions. Gibson says more specialized software would probably narrow the context and provide better accuracy.

In a demo at BusinessWeek's New York offices, it took several tries to get a correct transcription of an English sentence. But the spoken translation was mostly accurate—if overly literal—according to a person who speaks Egyptian Arabic. The software's makers pointed out that the tool is based on Modern Standard Arabic, commonly used on TV and radio in the Arab world. In the demonstration, it took approximately 20 seconds to get a translation after speaking into the device and confirming the transcription.

Sterling Jensen, a former interpreter who worked with the U.S. Army in Iraq, says that even with lag times and word errors, the tool would probably come in handy, assuming it's not used in life-or-death scenarios. "It's not for sensitive talks and interrogation," he says. "A tool like this could be really good to help soldiers shoot the breeze with Iraqis and develop rapport."

Schectman is a reporter at BusinessWeek.

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