So how does the U.S. military train translators? To be succinct: it doesn't.
DLI (the Defense Language Institute) takes members from all branches of the military and teaches them a language. All the major languages of the world, along with any language of strategic importance, are taught. You become a student at DLI usually as a result of the aptitude test administered after basic training. If you show great potential with language, you may be ushered off to DLI, and even given your choice of which language to study.
The actual classroom experience is simple: complete immersion all day long. Homework is assigned, and different students there have said different things about the quantity. Some say they didn't have to do that much; others claim there was a lot. Simply put, individual aptitude and the language being studied make a difference.
The course of study lasts from 40 to 80 weeks, roughly speaking. Easier languages, that is to say ones that are closer to English, such as Spanish, German, or French, take less time. Harder languages, ones that still bear some resemblance to English but have substantial differences and challenges, such as Russian, Farsi, and Arabic, take more time. And so-called exotic languages, ones that bear no resemblance to English at all, including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, take the most time. At the end of all this, the student has a basic command of the language, roughly equivalent to two to three years of college study, depending on the college and its instructors, of course.
Following time at DLI, service members are sent into field postings, where they continue to learn while working with their languages. At the end of this period, which also lasts roughly a year, the service members generally have a fair command of the language.
There is a proficiency scale used in the U.S. (both by the government and academia) to measure foreign language ability. It measures five skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and translating. The first four are measured on a scale that goes from 0 (no ability) to 5 (native ability), with "+" and "-" used at each level (you can be a 0+, in other words, but not a 0-).
The service members who finish the DLI course and field training generally end up being level 3 or 3+, which is pretty good given the time involved, but by comparison, schools that train translators, such as the Monterey Institute of International Studies (down the hill from DLI) or Kent State University in Ohio won't admit anyone who is less than a 4 in all areas except for translation, though the Monterey Institute does administer an aptitude test for translation prior to admission.
And that is the point here. I know I'll offend some members of the military with this, and I don't intend to make light of their efforts or intentions, but their skills in their learned language are rarely sufficient to even qualify for entrance to a translation or interpretation training program, and unless I am grossly misinformed, they receive no formal training in the art and skill of translation and interpretation from the military.
This would be rather like taking someone with a year or two of college math (say a year of calculus and a year of statistics) and asking that person to instantly become a financial analyst on Wall Street. The person has the foundation but needs to develop their knowledge base further, and then requires specialized training.
In other words, the translators and interpreters telling us (the military and government, that is) what the terrorists, insurgents, militants, and others involved in the War in Iraq, Afghanistan, and wherever else are not really up to the task. It is quite likely that information is being missed, or misunderstood.
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