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Universal language system may solve translation problems

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SINGAPORE : Scientists are on the verge of shipping a universal speech translator with a system that speaks Thai and more than 20 other languages. 

The heart of the U-Star system at the moment is usually a hand-held video camera like this, outfitted with a microphone (bottom) and the translation software.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) announced Sunday the system is in its final stage of development, and will be ready to ship well ahead of the planned Asean Economic Community in 2016.

U-Star, the name of the technology, currently translates 10 languages, either one-on-one or a conversation involving several different languages. They include Thai, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Malay, Korean, Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi and Vietnamese.

This Nectec cartoon illustrates the concept of U-Star. An English speaker and Thai speaker communicate perfectly by talking through the translation system.

When the system ships, anyone will be able to speak his or her native language into a hand-held device and communicate directly with any other native language user, including several at one time.

The new speech-to-speech translation project is a collaboration of eight agencies in Asian countries, including Nectec in Thailand.

Nectec said on its website that the current Thai module for U-Star "speaks" and translates eight languages - Thai, English, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian (and Bahasa Malaysia), Vietnamese, Chinese Mandarin, and Hindi.

Uses for U-Star just within Thailand are almost limitless. But the first advantage will be for managers, government officials and business people worried about how to communicate with the vastly increased foreign community that likely will follow the AEC.

The system being finalised by Nectec recognises 14,000 Thai words and 21,000 English words. "Users are allowed to speak any sentence based on recognisable words," said the Nectec internet media release.

The U-Star system is internet-based, meaning the software in the handheld device will communicate with language servers maintained at Nectec and in other countries.

This also means that while people can communicate face-to-face using the U-Star translators, they also can speak from city to city, or country to country.

"Less than five seconds per transaction on a normal internet (connection)" will be normal for any word or sentence needing translation, said Nectec.

At the moment, "Overall translation accuracy varies between 60 to 90 per cent, depending on the speaking environment and style." Increased accuracy and vocabulary will come quickly, the scientists believe.

None of the agencies involved in building the U-Star programme have announced exact availability or a likely price for the system.

In this test of the system, Paul only speaks Thai (noted by "th"), but is communicating with speakers of (top to bottom) Hindi, Vietnamese and Japanese.

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