Intelligence: Lost In Translation


December 11,2008: The United States military quickly discovered, after they went in Afghanistan and Iraq, that they needed a lot more interpreters and translators. Two years ago, it was believed that 7,200 Arabic and 750 Afghan (Pushtu or Dari) linguists were required. That was nearly twenty percent more than were needed the year before. Currently, the Department of Defense is trying to maintain a force of 7,000 Iraqis (or other Arabs), 2,000 Afghans and 2,200 American interpreters.

The Department of Defense can't train enough new military interpreters, so it has to hire local people. That has become more difficult in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem is that the local terrorists realize that the interpreters are important, and they, well, terrorize the interpreters into quitting or, even better, becoming a terrorist spy. This, obviously complicates things for the combat troops who need the interpreters to get their work done. The solution has been to have the intelligence troops work closely with hiring and monitoring interpreters. In some parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the interpreters are hired in secret, and much effort goes into keeping their job status secret from the local community.

There were other problem, namely literacy and quality. Many Iraqis and Afghans have learned English, but often not well enough for military use. Then there was the problem of literacy. Many of these English speaking Iraqis and Afghans were illiterate in their own language. Thus they were no good for translating documents or graffiti. There was also a problem with dialects. Many Arabs from outside Iraq were willing to serve as interpreters, but they quickly discovered that the Iraqi dialects were difficult to understand. Arab dialects are an old problem, only partially mollified by the fact that most Arabs can understand, but not speak, "standard" Arabic. This is how radio and satellite TV have thrived in the Arab world. But Arabs who travel around the Arab world continue to be shocked at how mutually incomprehensible the dialects are. This is less of a problem in Afghanistan, where Dari (an Iranian dialect) is widely used as a common language (among the dozens of languages and dialects that are used in everyday speech.)

Although the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean, there simply aren't enough for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has established the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualify (in terms of skills, and ability to get a security clearance) are paid a monthly fee to be available, in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a lot of American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war, because these civilians went to work for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation services in the United States and Iraq. Many of these interpreters are already qualified for the Civilian Linguist Reserve.

It didn't take U.S. troops long to realize that the most dangerous intelligence job in Iraq was that of interpreter. Hundreds have been killed by terrorists, including over twenty who were American citizens. Many of the Iraqi interpreters, and their families, have been allowed to live on American bases, and some are being offered permanent residence in the United States. Most of the interpreters regard the death threats from terrorists as part of the job. It's a good job, paying far more than most other work available in Iraq. Starting salary for interpreters is $600 a month, going up to $1,000 or more for particularly dangerous or difficult assignments. The average monthly salary in Iraq is not much more than a hundred dollars.

But the danger is great. While two out of every thousand American soldiers serving in Iraq got killed during the peak period of combat (2005-7), some 30 out of a every thousand translators died. For many interpreters, the job is more than a big paycheck. English speaking Iraqis also have a better idea of how things work in the rest of the world, and are eager to help Iraq overcome its gruesome past.

Another way to get Arabic interpreters is to hire them from other Arab nations. The money is attractive, and many linguists in nearby Arab nations have learned the Iraqi dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq will soon present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans, after one tour in Iraq, have comes back to help with screening English speaking Arabs applying for interpreters. To attract the needed number of interpreters, many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That way, these people, who are in short supply, can be offered enough money to induce them to take on this work.

The Department of Defense can get enough interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only by hiring a lot of foreigners. This is risky from a security point of view. Terrorist groups, and hostile governments, can get to these foreign interpreters eventually, and find out a lot about American intelligence techniques. This is a long term price to pay, in order to deal with the short term interpreter shortage.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close