Recently, on the eighth floor of an office building in Arlington, Va., Rachael held her finger down on a Dell Streak touchscreen and asked Aziz whether he knew the village elder. The handheld tablet beeped as if imitating R2-D2 and then said what sounded like, “Aya tai ahili che dev kali musha.”
The software running on the tablet was the culmination of TransTac, a five-year effort run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a system for “speech to speech” translation…. [TransTac] set out to do something very hard: getting a computer to listen to a person speak in one language, translate that speech into another language, and pronounce it aloud. The dream of using computers to translate human language goes back to the very early days of computing, when computers still used vacuum tubes. But it has consistently proved elusive.