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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU research could help soldiers communicate in different languages

In Iraq and other parts of the world where soldiers from different countries are fighting together in a coalition, communication on the battlefield can become problematic.

Bill Ogden, top, and Wanying Jin of the Computing Research Laboratory at New Mexico State University confer on language translation research. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Researchers from New Mexico State University's Computing Research Laboratory (CRL) and Department of Psychology are studying computer software that could help overcome this problem.

The NMSU researchers are evaluating software that provides automatic language translation services for instant messaging users. The software, known as Translingual Instant Messaging (TrIM), was developed by MITRE, a non-profit organization that operates three federally funded research centers.

The software testing work is part of a five-year, $3 million cooperative agreement that NMSU has from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) to study a wide range of decision-making aids and how people work with computers. The CRL, which was established by the New Mexico Legislature in 1983, is one of the country's leading centers for computer-based language translation. The NMSU Psychology Department is a leader in research on human-machine interaction.

While machine translation has been around for a long time, researchers have never been able to get computers to translate nuances of meaning. Working in instant messaging is even more difficult because people frequently use abbreviations that cannot be translated.

Although TrIM can translate from English into 15 other languages, a particular focus of the NMSU research is how it would work with Asian-speaking allies. NMSU researchers have tested the software using English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

To conduct their studies, NMSU researchers went to Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona, which serves as a center for the U.S. Army's intelligence training efforts. Soldiers there helped the researchers develop a real-life scenario in which to test the software. In the scenario, two people who spoke different languages were given a map with different information missing. They were asked to collaborate to create a complete picture of the situation. They also were asked to come up with a mutually acceptable decision based on information contained in the map.

Bill Ogden, project manager for the CRL, said their research found that the computer translations were "adequate" more than 80 percent of the time. Their research also found that translation slowed, but did not prevent, the performance of the necessary tasks. Of the five languages studied, the task took the longest to perform when it involved translation from English to Chinese.

Ogden said the NMSU research also has suggested several modifications that will make the TrIM software easier to use. One is user controls that could turn off automatic translation for specific terms, such as proper nouns. Another is a mechanism to translate comments that recur frequently in a conversation.

If TrIM proves to be successful, Ogden said the software could have other applications, such as disaster relief and distance education. MITRE has licensed TrIM to a New York-based company called Transclick.