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By Nick Wakeman

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Not lost in translation

The online item of Washington Technology this week that In-Q-Tel, CIA’s investment arm, made an undisclosed investment in Lingotek, a developer of translation tools in Provo, Utah, brought back memories of my years as an editor working for the agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service. It’s also shown me how much information technology has advanced since then.

We did nothing very secret or anywhere near as glamorous as a James Bond escapade; all the programs – and the news agencies we watched – were out there, mostly in the short wave bands for anyone to access if they had the time, the equipment (a Zenith transoceanic radio worked very well) and the language skills needed to glean the information.

In those Cold War days, listening to and translating news items into English from Radio Moscow and satellite states’ broadcasts from Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, East Berlin, Sofia, Beijing, Pyongyang, Havana and, yes, even Tirana, proved invaluable to the agency, the White House and the rest of the intelligence community.

President Kennedy learned that the Soviet naval vessels were being turned around and would not attempt to cross the Cuban blockade from a news “flash” on Radio Moscow in 1962. (That near war incident was the inspiration for the hot line that was built between the two nations soon after — a decidedly low tech affair consisting of very slow teletype machines that loudly pounded out English language poetry (lots of Frost and Sandburg) 24/7 for the Kremlin while the Pentagon received passages from Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Soviet-approved hacks. Both machines were watched constantly for the doomsday message from the other side.

Monitoring radio and press agency news was a time-consuming process with no guarantee of accuracy. We were at the mercy of teams of foreign-language translators, some more news savvy, politically astute and familiar with English than others. One translated news item from Radio Warsaw about an early manned space flight reported that the sun had made the cabin uncomfortably warm so the cosmonaut opened the window. Upon querying the translator, the phrase was changed to “deployed the solar screen.”

Translating Fidel Castro’s early marathon harangues of eight hours or more against “Yanqui imperialismo” were daunting affairs.

Over the years the CIA and other intelligence agencies have sought better methods to translate foreign-language materials faster and with greater accuracy. At one time it was Russian and Chinese; today the emphasis must be on Arabic, Pashto and especially Farsi. But regardless of the language, one crucial problem has been the inability of a machine to recognize idioms and to translate them so they make sense. For example, we know the term “a hot potato” means a delicate situation. Students of English learn such terms by rote, but a machine making a literal translation could be way off the mark, a high-temperature tuber, say?

So here’s hoping that In-Q-Tel’s investment pays off handsomely. One way to increase international understanding is to know the difference between a hot dish and cold cash in any language.

Posted by David Hubler on Jul 22, 2008 at 7:22 PM


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