Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears: US Military Turns to Contractor Linguists

The US military has come to rely more and more on contractors to provide linguist services to function effectively in non-English speaking regions. The need for these services is particularly acute in the Middle East and Central Asia where US troops are actively engaged.

Terrible Terps Can Leave You Tango Uniform

An indication of what could go wrong with an unskilled or hostile linguist is illustrated in a short documentary video produced by journalist John McHugh of The Guardian newspaper. In the video, a US Army sergeant and an Afghan tribal elder engage in a conversation about Taliban rocket attacks.

The US interpreter incorrectly conveys the tribal leader’s response to a question about the security in the area. The elder says that there is no security in the village and that is a problem. The interpreter tells the sergeant that the elder says the security is fine. “We have no problems here.”

The elder then tells the sergeant that he would like to cooperate with the Americans, and points to the direction from where the Taliban attacks are coming. But he says the villagers can’t cooperate under the current conditions because the Taliban are like “ants,” they are everywhere and impossible to stop.

The interpreter translates the elders words by saying, “He is giving many examples, the main point is that if you want to get the ACM [anti-coalition militia] they are behind this road, behind this mountain.”

As they walk away, the interpreter says “I hate these people.”

This video highlights the necessity for the US and allied forces to have interpreters who are reliable and loyal, understand the dialect of the local people, and can serve as cultural liaisons. The success of the US and allied mission, as well as the lives of soldiers, depends on it.

Interpreters versus Translators

There are 2 primary types of linguist services: interpreters and translators. Contractors usually offer both types of services.

Although some people do both, interpretation and translation are different professions, notes the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Interpreters deal with spoken words; translators with written words. Each task requires a distinct set of skills and aptitudes, and most people are better suited for one or the other. While interpreters often work into and from both languages, translators generally work only into their active language.

Interpreters convert one spoken language into another – or, in the case of sign-language interpreters, between spoken communication and sign language. This requires interpreters to pay attention, understand what is communicated in both languages, and express thoughts and ideas clearly. Strong research and analytical skills, mental dexterity, and an exceptional memory also are important.

The interpreter must become familiar with the subject matter that the speakers will discuss, a task that may involve research to create a list of common words and phrases associated with the topic. Next, the interpreter usually travels to the location where his or her services are needed. Physical presence may not be required for some work, such as telephone interpretation. But it is usually important that the interpreter see the communicators in order to hear and observe the person speaking and to relay the message to the other party.

Translators convert written materials from one language into another. They must have excellent writing and analytical ability. Because the documents that they translate must be as flawless as possible, they also need good editing skills.

Assignments may vary in length, writing style, and subject matter. When translators first receive text to convert into another language, they usually read it in its entirety to get an idea of the subject. Next, they identify and look up any unfamiliar words. Multiple additional readings are usually needed before translators begin to actually write and finalize the translation. Translators also might do additional research on the subject matter if they are unclear about anything in the text. They consult with the text’s originator or issuing agency to clarify unclear or unfamiliar ideas, words, or acronyms.

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