language/area expertise and the US government

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 3 12:36:08 UTC 2002

Lost in Translation at the F.B.I.


In announcing his restructuring of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Robert S. Mueller III, its director, stressed the importance of upgrading
the F.B.I.'s intelligence capabilities by recruiting "the right people with
the right experience." If my own experience with the agency is any guide,
that should include an urgent recruiting drive for people with the right
Arabic language skills.

Less than a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, I responded to the F.B.I.'s calls for Arabic translators. I know
of a half-dozen other Middle Eastern studies graduates who also applied —
Ph.D.s who, like me, are proficient in one or more Arabic dialects, as well
as in Modern Standard Arabic. Ultimately (dismayed by what seemed to us
the agency's flawed understanding of what proficiency in Arabic means)
none of us pursued our candidacies.

I applied less than a week after Sept. 11 but wasn't called for the
four-and-a-half hour translation test until January. It wasn't until
February that I sat for a four-hour interview and polygraph test. The
F.B.I. was then to begin a six- to eight-month background check. At the
earliest, I might have started translating more than a year after I applied.

The slow pace, however, wasn't the most unsettling characteristic of the
process. There was something more worrisome: The F.B.I.'s Arabic
translation test simply does not measure all the language skills needed for
intelligence gathering focused on Arabic speakers.

The Arabic-language test (copyrighted in 1994 by the Defense Language
Institute, according to the back of my exam booklet) was solely in Modern
Standard Arabic, the Arabic most frequently studied at American
universities. This is the form used for official speeches and in the news
media in Arab countries — but almost never in conversation. It differs
substantially from the spoken varieties of Arabic in vocabulary, syntax and
idioms — enough so that a non-native speaker who learned only Modern
Standard Arabic would not be able to understand Arabic speakers talking to
one another.

The regional dialects also differ from one another, varying considerably
from one end of the Arabic-speaking world (in Morocco) to the other (in
Oman). The dialects are, for some Arabic speakers, mutually unintelligible.
(Once, I mistakenly gave a Cairo taxi driver directions in Moroccan Arabic,
and he responded: "Ich spreche kein Deutsch.")

These varieties of Arabic are the language of the market, the home and the
street for the world's 200 million Arabic speakers. Yet no colloquial
Arabic, in any dialect, appeared anywhere on the F.B.I.'s Arabic
translation test, which included a listening-comprehension section.

During my post-exam interview, I tried to offer some feedback about the
test's failure to measure skills in everyday spoken Arabic, but the
interviewer brusquely moved on to his next question. Nor was there a chance
for me to name the two Arabic dialects in which I am proficient. The
interview is scripted; there is no room for unscripted interaction. All the
other Middle East studies applicants with whom I spoke said they, too,
noticed the test's shortcoming but couldn't find an opening to comment on it.

As the F.B.I. reorganizes, it should improve its recruitment of Arabic
translators by adding tests that measure fluency in one or more of these
numerous Arabic dialects. Otherwise, its translators may be limited to
reading Arabic newspapers or listening to Al Jazeera broadcasts. They may
misunderstand wiretapped phone conversations or be unable to identify
crucial information. Until the F.B.I. shows more willingness to listen to
the experts it is trying to attract, it will not get the expertise it needs.

Geoff D. Porter teaches Middle Eastern studies at New York University.

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