Meet the high-tech Ugly American

Published December 13, 2004 8:06PM (EST)

There might not be a better metaphor for the poorly planned U.S. occupation of Iraq. The "Phraselator," a hand-held device supplied to U.S. soldiers by the Pentagon, allows them to communicate hundreds of prerecorded Arabic phrases to Iraqis they encounter in the war zone. "The device, which looks like an oversize Palm Pilot with a speaker and a microphone on top, breaks into Arabic when it hears an equivalent phrase in English spoken by a user whose voice it recognizes," reports the New York Times Magazine. "Like an electronic parrot, the Phraselator may not be much of a conversationalist and can lack charm -- sample phrases include 'Not a step farther,' 'Put your hands on the wall' and 'Everyone stop talking' -- but its boosters claim that because the phrases are prerecorded by native speakers and not computer-generated, the monologues have 'a more natural feel.' The Phraselator is marketed as 'a complete solution for cross-cultural awareness.'"

Right ... but there's just one little thing missing from that "complete solution." While U.S. soldiers can broadcast orders across the cultural divide, they have no idea what Iraqis are saying back.

"Its creators at the Pentagon-financed company VoxTec admit that even the new model, the P2, has a drawback: it is still just a 'one-way' translation device. In other words, it phraselates perfectly well from English into Arabic (or any of the 59 other 'target languages' it has mastered so far), but the device is no better at understanding foreign languages than the Americans who are wielding it. So the Phraselator allows occupiers to issue commands, but it does not help them comprehend any of what the occupied may have to say in response."

You'd think the Pentagon might want to reach for a two-way gizmo, what with the well-known lack of Arabic translators for operations in Iraq, and in the broader war against terrorism.

Apparently VoxTec also envisions a broader market of Americans who would be perfectly happy to get lost in phrase-lation; despite the device's current limitation, "VoxTec is planning to roll out a consumer version soon, so it won't be long before American tourists will be able to make demands and deliver orders in foreign languages without having to learn a single word of them."

While the Times Magazine decided to feature the Phraselator in its 2004 "Year in Ideas" issue, it has in fact been around for quite a bit longer. For more on the mystery and wonder of the handy little device, read this article from Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski in April 2003.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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