It's the holy grail of translation, a goal one researcher has called "more complex than building an atomic bomb." Smooth, immediate translations between people speaking different languages would be a remarkable achievement of enormous economic and cultural benefit. Some suggest that it won't happen until computers can express true artificial intelligence - something like C-3PO of "Star Wars" fame, whose knowledge extends far beyond mere vocabulary to an understanding of customs and cultures.
Still, researchers are chipping away at the problem. Universal translation is one of 10 emerging technologies that will affect our lives and work "in revolutionary ways" within a decade, Technology Review says.
In one promising approach, researchers are concentrating on phrases rather than individual words, which can have various shades of meaning and result in awkward translations (just try one of the computerized text translators on the Internet). Phrases pose fewer problems.
Translation is "much easier if you're working in phrases because one of the biggest problems of translation is ambiguity," says Robert Frederking, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute in Pittsburgh. "Individual words are very ambiguous, but whole phrases, especially in a particular context of use, are not really ambiguous."
For example, Japan's NEC Corporation already is experimenting with a hand-held two-way translator that relies on phrases. The device was tested in February at Japan's Narita International Airport. Users speaking into it could translate simple travel phrases such as "Which way to the escalators?" from English to Japanese or Japanese to English. The device needs about one second to analyze a sentence and reply with a spoken translation in Japanese or English.
Translations between other languages are also in the works. The results of the test will guide NEC researchers, who hope to have a commercial model on the market before the end of the year. Some scientists see translation devices routinely embedded in the PDAs or mobile phones of travelers within a decade.
Meanwhile, the US military is giving a simpler one-way translation device a rugged road test in Iraq. The hand-held Phraselator also uses phrases to simplify translation. The user speaks or types an English phrase into the device, and it translates it aloud into a language. It can translate 20,000 phrases in 55 languages and can be attached to a loudspeaker for groups.
US forces are using the Phraselator to communicate with injured Iraqis, prisoners of war, travelers at checkpoints, and for other peacekeeping duties, according to Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who testified before a House subcommittee on terrorism last month.
The device is the idea of Ace Sarich, a former Navy Seal, who works for VoxTech, the Annapolis, Md., company that manufactures the Phraselator.
After Sept. 11, 2001, "we were asked by the Department of Defense to speed up our development" of the device, says Shannon Dooman, a VoxTech spokeswoman. Phraselator was first put to use by the US military in Afghanistan in March 2002.
Unlike some computerized translators, the Phraselator requires no training to recognize individual voices, a "big benefit" when being used by troops, Ms. Dooman says. The translated phrases are pre-recorded by native speakers, not constructed by an artificial voice, so they are clearly understood. Individual languages are stored on secure digital (SD) cards that can be loaded into the device.
The crew of the USS Enterprise used the device to help give medical treatment to an Iraqi fisherman, Dooman says by phone. And "one soldier said he was able to find a large weapons cache by talking with teenagers using the device."
Currently, the translation is in one direction only, from English to another language. Responses still require pointing and signing, though spoken replies can be recorded for later translation by a person.
The company foresees civilian applications for the Phraselator for those working in law enforcement, disaster relief, fire and rescue, and humanitarian aid. A smaller, cheaper version may be developed for tourists.
More sophisticated devices that can put words - not just phrases - in their natural context remain some way off. Fully natural conversations - two-way translations - are "a very daunting problem," says Dr. Frederking of Carnegie Mellon. Even human translators aren't perfect at it, he adds.
In 2001, Frederking participated in a US Army field test of a two-way translation device in Zagreb, Croatia. "It worked OK about half of the time," he says by phone, but the Army decided "that's not really good enough to deploy something."
Carnegie Mellon is working on its own "Speechlator" for use in doctor-patient interviews, Frederking says. The limited range of the typical conversation in a doctor's office greatly helps. "The doctor knows what's he's interested in," he says. "And there's a finite range of symptoms you [the patient] have. That kind of [computerized translator], where you're working on a specific task, is not that far away. I think that might become possible in the next couple of years." But translating a conversation where obscure phrases or slang could be injected "is still a long time away," he adds.
That doesn't stop some scientists from making bold predictions. Researcher Yuqing Gao told Technology Review that in 10 years everyone may have a two-way translator built into their personal digital assistant or cellphone.