http://www.montrealgazette.com/mobile/s ... id=2495163
Thursday, January 28, 2010
By Ken Meaney, Canwest News Service
Software erases language barrier between Haitian survivors, aid workers
The relief effort in Haiti has now extended to the Internet with the development of software designed to erase the language barrier between foreign aid workers and Haitian Creole speakers.
Although French is the official language of Haiti and is spoken by the elite, Haitian Creole is the most widely spoken language in Haiti, says Robert Frederking, senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI).
Although it is based on French, Haitian Creole has evolved substantially since Haitians overthrew their French colonial rulers more than 200 years ago, Frederking said in a news release.
Since then, word meanings have drifted and the language also incorporates some African syntax.
"French speakers can sort of puzzle through it, but Creole isn't penetrable if you don't know French," said Frederking, adding few translation resources were available for the language.
But since last week, when the Pittsburgh university released spoken and textual data it compiled on Haitian Creole, other institutions have begun developing translation tools desperately needed by doctors, nurses and other relief workers in the earthquake-ravaged country.
A team at Microsoft Research has used it to help develop a web-based system for translating between two dozen or so languages — such as English, Russian, Chinese and others — and Haitian Creole.
It's available at: http://www.microsofttranslator.com/.
As well, the not-for-profit Translators Without Borders — http://www.tsf-twb.org/ — based in Paris plans to distribute a medical triage dictionary to doctors in Haiti once the data has been converted into a readable format.
LTI researchers, likewise, have begun working on their own translation system for Haitian Creole.
The Carnegie Mellon database for Haitian Creole was created in the late 1990s for Diplomat, a project sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The project was headed by Jaime Carbonell, LTI director, and focused on developing portable, speech-to-speech translation devices that could be deployed rapidly for Haitian Creole and other languages of special interest to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Frederking and Alex Rudnicky, principal systems scientist in the Computer Science Department, served as co-principal investigators.
A prototype Haitian Creole translation system was delivered to the U.S. army, but "as far as we know, nobody ever field-tested it," Frederking said.
The project ended in the late 1990s, but LTI retained the data compiled for the project.
After the Jan. 12 earthquake, LTI researchers began work on an updated translation system for Haitian Creole that would incorporate the latest translation technologies.
To aid other groups pursuing parallel efforts worldwide, they also opted to release the data publicly at http://www.speech.cs.cmu.edu/haitian/. In addition to the Diplomat material, other data developed by researchers at LTI and elsewhere is being added to the site as it becomes available.
Given the extreme poverty of Haiti, "nobody is going to make money on a Haitian Creole translator," Frederking said.
"But translation systems could be an important tool, both for the relief workers now involved in emergency response and in the long-term as rebuilding takes place."
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake claimed an estimated 150,000 lives and devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding areas.
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