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Translating for the Intelligence Community

The U.S. government is the world’s largest employer of translators and interpreters. And the intelligence community, comprised primarily of the CIA, NSA, DIA, the intelligence divisions of each branch of the armed services, and the FBI hire a classified but doubtlessly large number of them.

The intelligence agencies do not hire interpreters or translators specifically; rather, they hire "linguists," people who are highly proficient in two or more languages and ideally have some training or experience as a translator, interpreter, or both. The agencies then put them to work mostly as translators, but often the translation is from a spoken source. In other words, you listen to a recording in, for instance, Arabic or Farsi, using a foot pedal to control playback, and type the equivalent English. Intelligence agency linguists who do this often translate the speech of the same person so often that they feel they know the person intimately, and can provide further insight into the person based on changes in tone of voice, accent, speech patterns, word choice, and other nuances.

Second, the intelligence agencies hire linguists based on a set of criteria not publicly known. From a variety of sources I've assembled the following general picture, but it is incomplete and may be incorrect in places. Obviously, you have to be an American citizen, and the agencies strongly prefer born over naturalized citizens. You have to be in good physical and mental health, pass an extensive background check that will cover your entire life and include anything and everything you did inside and outside the U.S., you have to have been in the U.S. for most of the past five to ten years, you have to have "minimal foreign exposure" (meaning no regular trips to Beijing or Baghdad, no marriage to foreigners, no close friends from Iran or North Korea), and you have to pass a battery of psychological exams that supposedly use very advanced brain scanning equipment to detect deception. Beyond this you have to pass the language tests for your languages, and you have to accept the lifestyle changes required to work for these agencies: you have to inform them of any new contacts, submit for review anything you want to publish, receive approval for any international travel plans, and so forth. Of course the above requirements may be bent if the agency needs a language, but in general they hold. 

There are, of course, several other possibilities. The National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) is constantly recruiting for contract linguists, what we would call freelance translators. The process is as slow and tedious as with any other part of the intelligence community. Once you get past the pretty portal at the NVTC’s Web site, you are in the FBI’s site, filling out page after page of information to begin the application process.

All of this eventually leads to a letter, if the NVTC is interested in your skills and approves of your background, inviting you for a day of language testing at a time and place of their choosing. Beyond that, if you pass, you may get contract work, paid at the usual government rates, which are usually not good.

But there is another reason to shy away from the NVTC. In the spring of 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “because the United States does such a poor job training translators and interpreters, recruiting enough help is impossible. So the director of the National Virtual Translation Center has turned to students for help. The center, itself only four years old, started a program about a year ago to send unclassified government documents to translation professors at several universities to give to their students as course work.”

I was once a translation student, and I've taught translation, as have several friends of mine. In case it's not immediately clear why using students to perform professional translation is a bad idea, consider this...

• The average translation student does 1000 words of translation per week

• Typical translation students cannot write well in their native or second language

• Most student translators make major meaning errors in every paragraph, if not every line of a text

• Students' translations are used as a learning exercise, not as finished products for public use

• Most student translators cannot handle technical, financial, or other difficult material until they are far along in their education

• There are only a few hundred student translators in the U.S. at present

Suffice to say that there will be blow-back from this, though we may never see specifically what it is. I would not want a medical student performing surgery on me or diagnosing a medical condition, nor would I want an undergraduate engineering student to design or program my next computer, car, or airplane I take. Training is important: it's the time to learn by trial and error (with lots of error being part of the process). It's not the time to use your partially developed skills to attempt to do what fully trained, experienced professionals get paid to do. And I would not want to work for an organization that functions in this way.

If the NVTC can't find people, then perhaps they should offer better pay and working conditions. Translators go where the work is, and where the pay is better. In other words, they behave like any other "economic animal" would. And the government may eventually understand what it takes to produce a translator or interpreter, and stop pretending that it's just a matter of a few months or a year or so of school at the Defense Language Institute.

So if you have the skills, you may be able to qualify for the application process. It takes upwards of a year, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on your background and the agency's needs. And it can end at any time without your ever knowing why. But if you make it all the way through, then you'll find out far more than I've revealed here.

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