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My Coast Guard
Commentary | March 23, 2023

Could a handheld device help the Coast Guard avoid getting lost in translation?  

By Kathy Murray, MyCG Writer 

The Coast Guard will soon start testing a portable language translator to help crews communicate with non-English speakers during rescues, patrols, and investigative missions.  

Managed by the Coast Guard Office of Research, Development, Test & Evaluation and Innovation (CG-926) and sponsored by the Office of Intelligence Workforce Management (CG-21), the Coast Guard is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (DHS S&T) on the Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) funded efforts. Two private companies are adapting their translation platforms with the goal of creating a device that would meet the unique needs of the service by being able to work offline and in the extreme environmental conditions encountered at sea. 

The customized translator is expected to be roughly the size of a standard phone and provide instant translations for 16 different languages. The initial prototypes – developed by myLanguage and Kynamics – are at different stages of completion. Coast Guard officials expect some devices could be available for testing on cutters as early as third quarter fiscal year 2023. 

With increased presence and demand for Coast Guard operations around the world, Adm. Linda Fagan said the translators would significantly boost safety in the field. The Coast Guard completed nearly 12,000 boardings last year for drug interdictions, distress calls, saving migrants, and inspections. Many of these were on foreign vessels, where human translators weren’t available. “Having a device that allows us to do that translation without connectivity is going to be such a game changer,” Fagan said.   

Lt. Cmdr. Amanda Hood would have liked to have had an offline language translator on her last tour – a two-year stint as operations officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Munro that concluded this past summer. Of the four different patrols and six missions she completed around the Pacific and the South China Sea, “without exception, I could have used the translator on every one of them,” Hood said. “I can’t use Google Translate in the middle of the ocean.” 

The Coast Guard typically has a surplus of Spanish translators, but an increased need for speakers of Mandarin Chinese and other Asian languages in the Oceania region has created challenges. In addition, Russian translators, which the Coast Guard used to borrow from the Navy to inspect Alaskan fisheries, have become more difficult to get since the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, fast response cutters in Guam and Hawaii encounter several diverse languages for which there are no translators. “Some of the areas are so remote you could presumably pick up a passenger that no one could talk to,” Hood said. 

In the absence of a human translator, crews are forced to improvise. Since static and background noise can make radio communications in any language difficult, the most common approach is for the Coast Guard boarding team to pull up alongside the vessel they want to board and exchange what Hood calls “Pointy-Talky” flip books, with pictures and rough translations of what they’re requesting. This can make it tricky enough to communicate with a friendly vessel, let alone one that doesn’t want to cooperate.  “You can be going in for a rescue and have no idea who you’re picking up,” Hood said. 

During one Munro patrol, the late arrival of a Chinese translator delayed a mission to inspect international fisheries in the Pacific. “If we can’t ask to board in Mandarin, they can just ignore us,” Hood said. “You could see where this would have made it difficult to board a Chinese vessel safely.” 

Even after the translator arrived, there was a new hiccup. The master of the ship was Chinese, but the crew was Indonesian. So, there was no way to communicate with them.  

While on the Munro, Hood came across ships piloted by Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese, sometimes with Filipino or Vietnamese crews. “Even though we’re big, that’s a lot of people to bring to translate,” she said, “but if we were able to use technology that’s a different thing.” 

The handheld translators are durable and waterproof. They’re designed to automatically detect language in either speech or text and translate the response in real time. Both companies relied on advanced algorithms and machine learning to build and refine a language database taken from not just dictionaries, but real-world documents from sources like the Defense Language Institute. They also fine-tuned models by using specialized language, including vocabulary, words, phrases and questions that the Coast Guard might use in the field. 

SVIP is one of the programs DHS S&T uses to fund private sector innovation and engage with commercial partners to advance homeland security solutions. The translator could be used by multiple DHS offices including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). To date, SVIP has funded close to $600,000 each for myLanguage and Kynamics to develop a customized Coast Guard device.  

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