To calm the anxieties of the Iraqi public, caught as they are between zealous terrorists and bewildered American troops, sincerely delivered phrases like "We are working to help you" can be offered.
Currently, though, Iraqi civilians are much more likely to hear this in stilted Arabic from a grapefruit-sized machine than from the mouth of a real live soldier.
The U.S. Army only has 1,300 people who can read or speak some Arabic. The entire State Department has only 60 people who are fluent, and up until 9/11, FBI headquarters had only two Arabic speakers on staff.
In late 2003, House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss (a Republican from Florida) blamed the CIA's lack of Arabic translators for botched intelligence before the Iraq war in a widely distributed New York Times article. Arabic audio recordings that hinted at the attacks ("Tomorrow is zero hour"; "The match is about to begin") were collected on September 10, 2001, but weren't read until September 12 due to a lack of qualified translators. Further audits have revealed hundreds of thousands of untranslated audio recordings.
The U.S. government has responded to this lack of linguistic intelligence with a huge push on language technologies designed to get the U.S. military communicating in Arabic. Unfortunately, this means that the Iraqi people have suffered the indignity of conversing with their occupiers through a computer.
For the past two years, American military personnel have been using the Phraselator Translation System, a Palm Pilot-like device that offers over 15,000 phrases in pre-recorded Arabic. English-speaking soldiers input the desired phrase (by speaking or using the computer screen) and a computerized Arabic voice instructs to "Put your hands up," or asks the perennially optimistic question "Do you know where any weapons are stored?"
One of the limitations of the Phraselator is that it cannot interpret the Arabic responses, so everything must be phrased to elicit a yes or no answer. Imagine playing 20 questions on the topic of aiding and abetting terrorists.
A decidedly low-tech solution currently in use by the military consists of laminated picture cards with what they refer to as 600 universally recognized symbols.
The Kwikpoint Visual Language Translator displays images of everyday objects people can point to, interspersed with surreal images of cartoon people in various states of injury and a checklist of different gun types.
The push to bridge the language gap is also going online. The National Virtual Translation Center, an organization created under the U.S. Patriot Act, is devoted to developing technology that quickly makes sense of the piles of written documents that remain untranslated.
Research groups such as BBN Technologies in Cambridge and the Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors at the University of Buffalo are currently developing software that would scan for patterns and specific characters in Arabic text. For the first time, this would render scanned Arabic text interactive, much as English documents are scanned and edited based on character-recognition software. The Army has recently purchased 1,500 briefcase-sized scanners that will whisk documents back to the head office for analysis.
As the investment in technological solutions to the U.S.'s language woes climbs, detractors worry that computers aren't the best tools for decoding the complexities of language. Human intelligence could be much more useful here: there are currently 250,000 Iraqis living in the U.S., a resource that has barely been tapped.
Arabic is notoriously difficult to learn and has the largest lexicon of any living language. Add to this the enormous variation of local dialects and the bewilderment U.S. troops are currently feeling amidst the anarchy of war and you can fully predict the Phraselator's most popular phrase: "Everyone stop talking."