translation softwareIBM has decided to donate a new automatic, portable software device for Arabic-English translation to help U.S. forces in Iraq. The donation, worth approximately $45 million, was made in honor of an employee’s son who was badly wounded while serving in the Arabic-speaking country…

IBM Chairman and CEO Samuel Palmisano had been hearing from several IBM employees who returned from active duty in Iraq that a shortage of human Arabic translators has severely hampered communication on the ground for U.S. forces.

As a result, Palmisano called and wrote President Bush directly, offering to make immediately available for use by the U.S. military in Iraq, 10,000 copies of the IBM software known as MASTOR, plus 1,000 devices already equipped and portable, along with technical training and support.

The Defense Department had been testing MASTOR — along with another translator created by a not-for-profit company — and is now looking into the legality of accepting such a large donation.

The system can recognize and translate a vocabulary of over 50,000 English and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words, and is designed for civil applications such as hospitals and training. It allows users to converse naturally, producing automatic translation through speakers as well as text versions, and can run on a variety of devices such as PDA, tablet PC or laptop computer.

The recent Iraqi Study Group report highlighted the importance of better communication and recommended this issue be given the highest possible priority. According to the report, of 1,000 U.S. Embassy workers, only 33 are Arabic speakers, and only six are at the level of fluency. Another concern is the safety of those providing translation services and protecting translators in conflict settings.

"The government sincerely appreciates IBM’s efforts in offering this donation," said Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, Vice Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This type of technology can help to improve communication for U.S. and coalition personnel with Iraqi citizens and aid organizations serving in Iraq."

There are fewer than 20 commercial translation systems currently available globally. Yet the need for cross-language communication has never been more urgent. A secondary goal of IBM’s contribution is to encourage other businesses to speed their translation developments and possibly offer their resources for similar humanitarian reasons.

In addition to Iraqi Arabic, Mastor is available in Mandarin Chinese, and IBM is currently extending the technology to additional languages. (Thanks to Jim Schneider for alerting GNN to this story!)

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