Key to Success in Iraq? MASTOR Arabic-English Translation Software

Our Guest Blogger, Jack Robinson, is an Infantry Platoon Sergeant in the US Army, just home from 15 months in Iraq. He writes on a variety of subjects, from politics to off-roading, from religion to mixed martial arts. He is a Soldier who writes. In seven years, he would like to be a writer who used to soldier. He wanted to share the latest innovations used by the military with the readers of

Here's his article:

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I learned a significant amount of Arabic in Iraq, more than most guys in my unit, and I absolutely never had enough of a vocabulary to carry on more than a halting, sketchy conversation. The Arabic I did know came in extremely handy and often contributed to successful missions, avoided danger, better relations with the locals, and more information gathered. If I had been fluent or close to it, I have no doubt that we could have been even more successful.


Interpreters are always in short supply. We almost never had more than one in our company, and since we have three platoons, someone was always on their own. If we were lucky, some of the Iraqi Army officers would speak a little English and we would make do.

IBM has recently created software that can translate both voice and text from English to Arabic and vice versa with up to 80% accuracy in the right conditions. The program is called MASTOR , and while it will never be as good as a reliable and fluent interpreter, it is light years ahead of the short phrasebooks and point-and-talk picture cards issued by the US Army to Soldiers in Iraq.

MASTOR softwareMASTOR software

What is the asking price for this groundbreaking technology? IBM initially offered it to the military for free. Unfortunately, it looks like the military may not be able to accept it as a gift due to regulations designed to prevent companies from seeking favoritism in future contract negotiations. The offer is still being reviewed to determine the legality and possible ramifications.

Why would they offer it for free, if not for favoritism? IBM actually did it to honor the son of one of their employees who was severely injured in Iraq. And it is at this point that the tale takes a turn for the weird.

I've rarely felt like I was in an episode of LOST, but this is one of those times.

When I started researching this piece of equipment for my first article on this site, I chose the MASTOR Arabic-English translation software because it is something that has enormous implications for both the military, and when it is made publically available, for travelers everywhere. Of all the challenges we faced in Iraq, the language barrier was one of the most consistently frustrating.

In one of my sources of research I discovered the reason for the free offer.

In the next, I discovered that I was there the night the employee's son was injured.

Late one night in February of 2007, I was crouched on a rooftop in a particularly bad part of Ar Ramadi, Iraq, with a squad of my Soldiers, waiting in overwatch as a platoon from another company moved toward us on foot . When they were about two blocks away, my heart sank as we heard a tremendous explosion from their location. Several Soldiers were severely injured by an IED, including SGT E. who lost both his legs.

The story made its way to the CEO of IBM, who actually contacted President Bush and made the offer personally. The offer was also presented to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by IBM officials.

Hopefully they can find a way to accept this act of generosity and patriotism. According to a senior IBM official who handles IBM's government sales, she would not expect acceptance to cut potential rivals out of government contracts for similar technology.

The technology, successfully implemented, would have a tremendous impact of mission success, and the ultimate winner would be the American Soldiers, who are often limited to hand signals and frustration in dangerous situations, and the American People, who are justifiably eager to resolve the security situation in Iraq quickly and successfully.

Jack Robinson
Guest Blogger