When 'pigeon' English fails...

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Aug 25 18:16:06 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

August 24, 2005
Lost in Translation

THERE is an amusing scene in an "Indiana Jones" film where a British
scholar walks around a train station in a foreign land desperately seeking
help by calling out, "Excuse me, does anyone here speak English? Or
Ancient Greek?" Today our troops in Iraq often find themselves in that
same scene - except it never ends.

The widely reported shortages of vehicles, armor and other equipment have
demonstrated the level to which the Bush administration has not provided
our soldiers or their Iraqi allies with the basic tools needed to do the
job. But a less remarked-upon problem, the extreme shortage of translators
to help our soldiers communicate with Iraqis, is particularly puzzling.

Without an interpreter, our people are essentially blind to what is
happening around them. They cannot tell if the loud argument in the market
is over the price of tomatoes or a threat of murder. And because in
general we hire local Iraqis to surmount the language hurdle, Americans
don't even know if they can trust their own interpreters. Equally
important, Iraqis who want to share important information with an American
patrol cannot unless there is an interpreter - a message as simple as
"look behind the grade school" is impossible to convey in hand signals and
pigeon [sic!] English. How can average Iraqis help us secure the country
if they can't speak to us?

Yet American forces in Iraq average only one or two interpreters per
company (about 150 soldiers or Marines). When I was there on active duty
last year, I worked in the department providing all American logistical
and maintenance support for the nascent Iraqi armed forces. Our office had
two Americans and 22 Iraqis - and not a single translator. At the various
military bases we oversaw, conversation between American advisers and
their Iraqi counterparts was catch-as-catch-can. And we were banned from
hiring Iraqis on our own because we were told that one American contractor
had a "sole source contract" with the Pentagon.

Why couldn't the contractor provide sufficient translators? While I never
received an official explanation, I did get a pretty good hint: the
translators we worked with told me they were getting about $400 a month
for their services. This is clearly insufficient to encourage many Iraqis
to risk their lives to help us. The American businesses in the region,
like the oil contractors and even press organizations, paid much more.
This is a problem we should be able to solve quickly. One of the great
strengths of our immigrant nation is that we have thousands of citizens
and aspiring citizens who are fluent in both English and Arabic. Why we
have not made use of this talent is a mystery.

The Pentagon might try a two-stage approach to capitalize on this
Arab-American population. First, appeal to patriotism. Throughout our
history, particularly in the two World Wars, new Americans have shown
remarkable loyalty to their adopted home. Many Arabic speakers took great
risks to become a part of our melting pot, yet since 9/11 the government
has often acted as if they cannot be trusted. It is time to recognize
their loyalty and ask for their help.

Second, because they're doing a high-risk job, we must pay interpreters
adequately. The Pentagon has used market forces to ensure we have
sufficient civilian truck drivers and caterers, and those same forces can
ensure we have enough qualified interpreters.

If we paid an Arabic speaker, say, $200,000 a year to go to Iraq, and that
interpreter prevented a single American casualty, he would have more than
paid for himself. That is, even setting aside the human cost of a
fatality, the financial cost of the death of a soldier (usually $500,000
in Pentagon-supplied death benefit and life insurance) or a serious injury
(often much higher) make interpreters a good investment. Of course, as we
do with most contractors we hire in Iraq, we would put much of the salary
into a large bonus for completing the tour of duty: say 35 percent for the
first 364 days and 65 percent on the 365th day - all of it tax free.

We also need to make greater use of Arabic-speaking Americans at home for
accurate translation of captured documents. Former colleagues still
serving in Iraq have complained to me of months-long delays in translating
captured files. One told me of finding documents that proved some senior
Iraqi National Guard officers were working for the insurgents but that
went untranslated for more than 120 days; the men were arrested when the
translations came back - but only after doing four more months of damage.

There is no reason for such delays: anything captured in Iraq can be
quickly scanned and e-mailed to the appropriate government agencies. The
problem is that we don't have enough people to translate them at home. In
the same vein, federal law-enforcement agencies have hours of audio tapes
and piles of documents that need translation from the Arabic. One would
assume that if these conversations were important enough to tape, they
must be important enough to translate.

THE government should approach Arab-American community leaders to help
with a recruitment campaign to develop cadres of translators for the
Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and our various intelligence
agencies. Not only would this give these citizens a way to directly
contribute to the war effort, it would also provide new jobs in their
communities, many of them economically struggling.

Insurgencies like that in Iraq are defeated not on the battlefield but by
good governance and effective police work. We will not achieve either if
we can't understand what our allies are saying, much less what our enemies

Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, is the author of "The Sling
and The Stone: On War in the 21st Century."

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