Lost in Translation
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Jun 22 14:51:04 UTC 2005
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Lost in translation
By Julian E. Barnes
One of the biggest challenges for U.S. military advisers is communicating
with the Iraqi soldiers they are supposed to be training. Most of the
small "firm bases"the forward military outposts where Iraqis and Americans
live and workhave translators stationed at them, though many of the
translators have only a rudimentary understanding of English.
There is a case to be made that the marine advisers and Iraqis are better
off with no translators than with bad ones. With bad translators, the
Americans are unable to convey much nuance in their conversations, but
because the translators are there, they lack the urgency to learn Arabic.
In Fallujah, most conversations between the Iraqi jundi, the Arabic word
for soldiers, and the marines take place in broken English. But at the one
northwest Fallujah outpost, Staff Sgt. Tom McCarty has learned to speak to
the Iraqis in broken Arabic. For the first two months with his Iraqi
company, there was no interpreter and that forced him to learn how to say
about 60 Arabic phrases. And he says he can understand a couple of dozen
As a result, McCarty is one of the more talkative marines on patrol. He
tries to chat up the residents he sees, and does the best he can. And his
is a distinctive patois. McCarty is an Irish-American, but he grew up on
the Navajo Indian Reservationhis mother was a Bureau of Indian Affairs
schoolteacherand occasionally the cadences of Indian country sneak into
his sentences. "I can communicate with the jundi but not with the
civilians," McCarty says. "I say, 'Salaam alaikum [peace unto you],' and
they look at me like I have a [vulgarity] growing out of my head."
Which is not actually true. Recently, as the patrol he was overseeing came
to a halt, an Iraqi boy came up to him and asked for "chocolate," one of
three English words every Fallujan child knows. (The others are "mister"
and "gimme.") When McCarty gave him a Tootsie Pop, a man in a car a few
feet away started yelling at the child and waving his arms. The child
cowered and then ran across the street. The patrol had halted in a
particularly unfriendly part of the city where the marines say they get
"the stinkeye" a lot. But as the patrol began moving again, McCarty walked
up to the man in the car.
"Afwan [excuse me]," he said.
The man smiled and unleashed a stream of Arabic, far too fast and
complicated for McCarty to understand. And then a word McCarty does
understand: "Shukran [thank you]."
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