For Iraqis, English translates to risk

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 28 16:38:50 UTC 2004

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer,  Posted on Sun, Mar. 28, 2004

For Iraqis, English translates to risk

Interpreters face increasing danger while working with Americans.
By Carol Rosenberg
Inquirer Foreign Staff

BAGHDAD, Iraq - An unemployed Iraqi doctor stopped an American on a street
corner to show off his Hollywood-sounding English, an innocuous encounter
until the conversation turned to why the Arab isn't working as a
translator in Baghdad's booming marketplace. "I'll be condemned and
stigmatized in my neighborhood," said Dr. Laheeb, offering only his first
name. "The translators are being assassinated and shot. I'm still cautious
about pleasing the Yankees."

Pleasing the Yankees is indeed a dicey proposition here. Insurgents are
forcing out foreigners with suicide bombings and drive-by shootings. And
linguists are caught in the cross fire, as they ease everything from U.S.
patrols and construction projects to the barrage of news reports that
stream from Iraq each day. Many have been unheralded casualties of the
shadowy year-old war. The latest was an Iraqi translator for Time
magazine, who died Friday from wounds he sustained when he was ambushed
Wednesday as he drove to work.  Another interpreter, working with the U.S.
Army, was killed last Sunday when someone triggered a remote-control bomb,
then opened up with automatic gunfire on an Army patrol. An American
soldier also was killed.

Uncounted hostilities

Since the U.S.-led invasion, uncounted numbers of translators have been
menaced with anonymous death threats and maimed in drive-by shootings and
by roadside bombs. Some have fled their homes, switching neighborhoods or
seeking haven with the Americans. At least 26 have been killed. They
include Alya Sousa, 54, who who died along with U.N. special envoy Sergio
Vieira de Mello and 20 others in August's car bombing of U.N.
headquarters; Voice of America linguist Selwan al Niemi, 28, who died
along with his mother and 5-year-old daughter when gunmen ambushed his car
in Baghdad on March 5; and Selwa Ourmashe, who was working for an American
women's rights advocate when she was killed with her boss and a civilian
Pentagon contractor in an ambush March 9.

"People are being painted as targets because they are working for the
coalition," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy commander for
coalition military operations in Baghdad. He called the killings "just a
ruse used by terrorists and former regime members to intimidate people who
are working for a new Iraq." Translating is vital to Iraq's opening to the
West and a coveted skill once fiercely controlled and monitored, like so
many facets of life, under Saddam Hussein. It seemed to visiting
correspondents then that almost no one spoke English when encountering an
American. It was safer to play dumb.

Secret preparation

But university-educated Iraqis had routinely studied English and honed
their skills secretly in late-night Western movie and TV marathons during
the lonely last years of the regime. So when the Americans arrived,
entrepreneurial English speakers seemed to appear out of nowhere at
foreigners' hotels, trading their linguistic and cultural expertise for
coveted dollars. Soldiers use them to tell the good guys from the bad in
streets that can alternate between ferocious and friendly. Contractors use
them to negotiate a share of mostly U.S.-controlled reconstruction
contracts and to direct laborers in coalition rebuilding projects. Western
journalists use them to make sense of the mayhem at suicide attacks, to
monitor Arabic news reports and to arrange and interpret interviews.

Today's translators include political science professors with doctorates,
former Baath Party members, former Information Ministry escorts and recent
college graduates. A cardiologist accompanied a British reporter around
the city for $50 a day. Hundreds of Iraqis stream daily into the so-called
Green Zone, the sprawling compound for the U.S.-led occupation, to
translate documents, interpret at meetings and join troops on raids and
routine patrols. There's no official estimate of how many interpreters are
on the coalition's payroll, nor of how many have perished.

Wil Williams, a spokesman for Titan, a California-based Defense Department
contractor and major provider of Iraqi language specialists, says the
topic is too touchy, citing the "security and the safety of linguists."
Nor would he confirm Iraqi accounts that Titan scouts recently raised
salaries from $250 to $350 a month as the job grew more dangerous. The
U.S.-led coalition, which keeps meticulous count of U.S. military
casualties, doesn't track how many Iraqi translators have been maimed or
killed by roadside bombs, shootings or military accidents. But a review of
coalition and news reports found 14 were killed while working with the
coalition, none of them named, and six more were killed while working for

Six other translators have died while employed by Western news
organizations, including CNN, the BBC and the Boston Globe, in drive-by
shootings, a coalition air assault and an auto accident. Many others have
been grappling with threats as they help journalists dig below Iraqi
society's Byzantine surface. "The safety of our local staff has become an
increasingly important concern," said Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv
Chandrasekaran, who runs one of the largest foreign news offices here.

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