Army tells gay translators: don't tell, or don't translate

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri May 25 18:45:49 UTC 2007

There's a new post on Web of Language:

Army tells gay translators: don't tell, or don't translate

According to the Houston Chronicle, the U.S. army has kicked out as  
many as 58 Arabic translators recently because they were gay.  40  
members of the House of Representatives want to know why, when the  
army is so short on troops that it’s issuing what it calls “moral  
waivers” that allow convicted felons, drug users, and those who fail  
to meet the army’s educational standards all to join up, it can  
afford to dismiss soldiers with language skills that are actually  
critical for pursuing the war on terror....

Not only is it difficult for the military to train compulsively  
monolingual Americans to speak Arabic, it’s also tough for the  
Pentagon to find Arab American soldiers for that job: American troops  
speaking Arabic as their first language often can’t pass the security  
clearance.  And even if they do, they may be regarded with suspicion  
by their superiors.  Since 2001, several heritage-language  
translators with top security ratings have been arrested on suspicion  
of espionage, though, to date, there have been no translators convicted.

As for those Iraqi Arab-speakers attached to the American occupation  
forces, they are frequently assassinated by their countrymen for  
consorting with the enemy.  Translation is risky business in a war  
zone, and it should also come as no surprise that many Iraqis don’t  
trust anyone who speaks English.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sees no irony in the fact that the  
military finds convicted felons and illiterates less morally  
problematic than well-educated homosexuals without so much as a  
parking ticket on their records who might actually be able to  
understand what the enemy is talking about (not to mention what our  
Iraqi “allies” are really saying).  Gates insists that in drumming  
out the translators, the army is simply following the law, a law  
which he has no intention of reviewing.

And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this latest military catch  
22: the army needs a few good translators, and when it finds them, it  
gets rid of them.  It’s just a version of the bigger American  
monolingual catch 22:

Americans, whatever their origins, don’t study foreign languages all  
that much -- we don’t even study our heritage languages.  We are a  
nation forged from many ethnicities, and while Teddy Roosevelt once  
warned that the United States could become a polyglot boarding house,  
we have become instead a monolingual nation, one that doesn’t trust  
speakers of any language except English.
read the whole post on the
Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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