Murphy's Law: June 4, 2005


A high-tech language translator, one of the "gee wiz" gadgets rapidly fielded to troops over the past few years, has been panned by some in the psychological operations (psyops) community. Built around a hand-held PDA, the system was designed to translate key phrases from English into a different language, allowing soldiers to "talk" with natives without a human translator. Like many new systems, there have been some problems encountered in the rush to field solutions. The first generation models incorporated a non-standard lithium battery that was hard to replace, making reliability around "70 percent" according to a soldier that had worked with the system. Newer systems are built using off-the-shelf cell phone batteries, so it's easy to keep around a spare charged battery with a little advanced planning.

In spite of the battery issues, rank-and-file combat troops, medics, and intel personnel love the device, as it provides a quick fix to give instructions or ask basic questions when there's not a human translator around. But when it comes to more lengthily and subtle interactions with the natives, its limitations become apparent, especially in psyops, where there's a lot of schmoozing and building of trust with the population. Many people and cultures prefer the "human touch" over using a machine and become, at the very least, annoyed and insulted that U.S. troops can't be bothered to speak and learn the native language. Psyops prefers human translators for a "softer" approach due to the amount of schmoozing involved. A good translator can try to phrase requests and questions in different ways and pick up on subtleties in responses that a PDA translator won't. Doug Mohney.


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