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Blowing the Whistle on Unqualified Military Interpreters
Posted by Nataly Kelly, Donald A. DePalma on September 9, 2010  in the following blogs: Interpreting, Supplier Business Issues
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A former employee who screened interpreters for Afghan languages at Mission Essential Personnel has blown the whistle on his former employer, citing that the practice of sending interpreters into battle -- even though they did not speak the language(s) for which they were hired to interpret -- is widespread.

The video footage from ABC news is damning, to say the last. It clearly shows the interpreter violating many of the core tenets of interpreting -- failing to interpret everything that was stated (omissions), interpreting things incorrectly (misinterpretations), making things up (embellishment), and even going so far as to say, "I hate these people" (referring to the Afghan villagers). Not exactly a model interpreter, to say the least.

This kind of behavior does not come as a surprise. At Common Sense Advisory, we've heard numerous reports about the lack of qualified interpreters in the military, and have interviewed various members of the armed forces -- including the linguists themselves -- who have told us similar stories:
  • Interpreters who speak the wrong languages. We learned that an interpreter for Arabic was sent directly from Iraq to Afghanistan -- where people primarily speak Dari and Pashto. He told us he refused to stay there, but that there were other Arabic interpreters who failed to disclose the fact that they did not speak the languages in question, mostly because they did not want to lose their salaries. And in some cases, they had nowhere else to go, as their homes had been destroyed.

  • Interpreters who pretend to speak a language. We've heard of cases where interpreters were acting as if they understood and spoke the language, when in actuality, they did not know it at all. One linguist even told us that he learned the language while he was working as a military interpreter, and actually had only basic knowledge at the time he was hired. He could barely ask where the bathroom was located, but yet the lives of soldiers literally depended upon his ability to communicate.

  • Interpreters without ethical principles and standards. Many military contractors do not hold their interpreters accountable to any set of ethics or standards for interpreting in military settings. Often, these interpreters become strongly aligned with the soldiers with whom they are working, thereby making it even more difficult for them to maintain the neutrality and objectivity that are absolutely necessary for interpreting accurately.

  • Interpreters with no training. When we attended InterpretAmerica earlier this year, we spoke with military interpreters who voiced great concern about the lack of training in the field.  One interpreter explained that she was given absolutely no training whatsoever to prepare her for her work, even though she had not interpreted prior to accepting the job.
These problems are longstanding, and are not just limited to Afghanistan. Back in 2007, we received information on an open panel discussion on “Utilizing Linguists on the Battlefield.” Military officers reported that:
  • Missions were compromised. Locally recruited linguists in Iraq often lacked adequate English skills to meet the requirements of the mission. A platoon once missed one of the biggest improvised explosive device (IED) makers in the city because of the inability of the linguist to explain that fact.

  • Languages were lacking. The military contractor was unable to provide military personnel with interpreters for Turkmen.

  • Interpreters were not trustworthy. Local linguists were often paid in cash, and once paid, would disappear to their family and not return. The time spent trying to replace the interpreters significantly impacted their mission. The military also frequently had problems with interpreters stealing from the homes they entered.
We've written before about the difficulty the U.S. government has had in finding enough qualified interpreters, while simultaneously losing some of their best and brightest linguists due to "Don't Ask Don't Tell." And, we've written an entire report on the US$4.5 billion the government has spent on language services since 1990.

Have those taxpayer dollars been spent wisely? As the ABC news report clearly shows, no, they haven't. Military interpreters voluntarily risk their lives, and there are certainly many talented, well-trained interpreters that work in the field and should be respected for the work that they do. However, interpreters are also the gatekeepers to communication that is critical to the protection of the lives of thousands of troops and innocent civilians. When it comes to getting value for money, this is not the place to skimp. Only by implementing programs to thoroughly test, train, and monitor military interpreter performance, can the lives of others be protected.


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