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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note

Air Date: Week of January 5, 2007

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Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Szu-Chen (Stan) Jou

Scientists are building a new device that instantaneously translates mouthed words into a foreign language. Jennifer Percy reports.

Transcript

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

Imagine being able to speak another language by silently mouthing the words in English. A translator created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University promises to do just that.

The device uses a series of electrodes attached to the face and neck that interpret the muscle movements of a speaker. These movements create electrical signals, which are interpreted into English and translated by a computer into another language. The translation is then broadcast in a synthetic voice. Here’s an example:

[AUDIO TRANSLATION]

Existing translators make conversation difficult because they require the user to speak out loud and then push a button to create the translation. The new apparatus allows for a more natural exchange. Researchers say the effect would be like watching an American television show dubbed in a foreign language.

  

Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Szu-Chen (Stan) Jou demonstrates the prototype at a press conference. (Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)

The translator also has the potential to be more accurate than existing devices, which frequently make mistakes. Like interpreting translation device into translation divorce.
The new translator is more accurate because the electrodes detect not just words but phonemes—or the sounds that form words. English, for example, has only has 45 phonemes. The device memorizes the phonemes of a language and uses these as a base to construct a potentially limitless vocabulary.

But right now, the translator is accurate only 62 percent of the time. Researchers hope to make the translator more reliable by programming it to voice doubt. But for now it looks like some things will remain lost in translation.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jennifer Percy.

 

Links

"It’s the next best thing to a Babel fish"

 

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