Gadgets: Language Translator

Could a small, relatively inexpensive, Spanish-speaking PDA-size translator have prevented a dramatic melee between Los Angeles police and civilians earlier this year—and the more than 250 legal claims against the city that resulted? Los Angeles Police Capt. Dennis Kato is betting on it.

The LAPD recently began outfitting several all-terrain vehicles with speakers designed to work with the Phraselator, a portable device that, when programmed, can translate up to 100,000 words or phrases in almost any language. Now the police can quickly broadcast basic crowd control messages—"We are here to support your First Amendment rights," or "This has been determined an unlawful assembly" or "We need you to move away"—and potentially prevent the chaos caused by miscommunication.

According to Kato the Phraselator might have prevented a clash between the LAPD and protesters at an immigration rally back in May. Overwhelmed by a swelling crowd that failed to heed dispersal orders, officers resorted to using their batons and firing nonlethal rounds, leaving hundreds injured. "We were relying on announcements made from a [noisy] helicopter. And the pilot who was available at the time spoke only English, even though he was addressing a largely Spanish-speaking crowd," says Kato, who is working with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton to improve crowd-control procedures.

As any fan of "Star Trek" will tell you, universal language translators aren't exactly a new idea. Tech-savvy tourists have been downloading phrase translation programs to their PDAs for years. But the Phraselator, created by Annapolis, Md.-based Voxtec, is the first aimed at law enforcement agencies around the country that are struggling to serve increasingly multilingual communities.

The Phraselator owes its development, in part, to the Pentagon, which gave Voxtec funding after the September 11 attacks. An early version of the handheld device was introduced in 2002, when U.S. troops in Afghanistan began using them to better communicate with locals there. The military currently has 5,000 of the devices in use, many in Iraq. Now law enforcement agencies in L.A., Ohio and Miami, among other places, have begun using the Phraselator. According to Clayton Millis, Voxtec's director of sales and marketing, there are parallels between wartime communication needs overseas and law enforcement communication needs here, especially in rural communities. "Police departments, particularly in Middle America, they don't always have access to Spanish speakers," he says. And unlike consumers, law enforcement needs industrial-strength units that can stand up to inclement weather and harsh handling.

They also must translate clearly. For example, the police are required to make sure that everyone they arrest understands their Miranda rights: the right to remain silent, the right to speak to an attorney, etc. Failure to properly inform someone of those rights can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal. The legal language the police use must be precise—not necessarily what you'd find on the handheld translator your mother took on her trip to Paris last summer.

While larger police departments often offer language training and actively recruit bilingual officers (about 45 percent of the LAPD's 10,000 officers speak Spanish), many officers rely on translation sheets that they carry or on language phone lines—so-called "dial-a-translator" services that charge by the minute. The Phraselator, which starts at $2,500 per unit and can be programmed with virtually any language, is comparatively cost-effective, some law enforcement officials say. Capt. Tom Eberhardt, assistant commander of the correctional services division for Lee County, Fla., uses it for booking, processing and understanding medical issues of those among the 2,400 inmates in his charge who understand Spanish or Creole far better than English. Eberhardt, who says only 75 of his 1,400 correctional officers speak another language, bought several units and has programmed them with about 165 phrases. For basic essential communication, "it saves money," he says, adding, however, that the device "is not really made to replace an interpreter."

The Phraselator offers only one-way communication, meaning respondents must answer simply—with a yes or no or by nodding their heads. "Handheld devices are good in terms of immediate access to a means of communication, but it can also be problematic, because they don't allow different variations, and context can be really limited," says Armando Valles, assistant director of the National Center for Interpretation at the University of Arizona.

So far, says Voxtec's Millis, the Phraselator has been used by law enforcement primarily for crowd control, but some departments are now starting to test it in patrol situations. Other applications are on the horizon as well. The company is working with several Native American tribes to apply the technology to preservation of their languages and is also working with emergency service providers to use Phraselators with medical assistance and evacuation orders during natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and wildfires. And next time a rally winds its way through the streets of Los Angeles's diverse downtown area, Capt. Kato is ready. His Phraselators, he says, can speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Japanese.