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Translating Terrorism

Who is translating for the terrorists? When a terrorist or foreign fighter is captured, who translates whatever is said during the interrogation? This is a seemingly minor but ultimately very important question, since information gleaned during interrogation is often the basis for battlefield tactics and government policy.

The U.S. military’s translators, who are actually what would be called interpreters in professional circles, are present for the interrogation, listen to what the person being interrogated says in Arabic, Farsi, Davi, Pashtu, or whatever language, and then reproduces that utterance in English. These translators are not trained at all in the art of interpretation, and do not typically have a high-level of proficiency in their second language.

So to make this simple, we'll just focus on Arabic and the interrogation of terror suspects and detainees in the War on Terror. Other such people from other countries speaking other languages of course exist, but since the same basic procedure holds, there is no need to go through each in detail.

First, the sessions are recorded, so anything that is said can be examined again later by other language specialists. Whether or not this is actually done, whether or not such specialists are available, and whether or not the recordings are high quality, I don't know. It probably depends on a variety of issues. And recording interrogation, though useful, is also risky, since there are a variety of news agencies, human rights groups, and others who would love to get their hands on such material, and would present it without the context necessary to understand what is happening.

Second, and I have this on good word from people inside the system, locals, in our scenario Iraqis who speak the local dialect of Arabic, are brought in to assist in the process of communicating with the terrorist or detainee. A complete knowledge of all the slang, idiom, dialect, and such that exists in a language takes many years of living in the country to master if you master it at all, so bringing in someone who already knows all this is useful. It is also risky, since the local may or may not know how to explain these linguistic particulars, and may or may not deal well with watching interrogation, torture or otherwise.

So there is a team effort here, if an awkward one. An American soldier with limited training in Arabic is working with a local Iraqi to question a detainee/terrorist. The telephone effect can easily come into play. You remember the telephone game from childhood: one person starts off with a message, passes it to the next person, and after doing this through all of twenty to thirty people in a classroom, the message is garbled, and the result is funny. But in an interrogation scenario, such garbling is not funny, and could be disastrous.

This is, in other words, a situation in which human error and human ability count more than most people might imagine. No technology is at work, just people trained at various levels to perform various tasks. The military translator/interpreter is not actually trained in those skills, and lacks sufficient language proficiency in most cases. The interrogator probably does not know any of the language the detainee/terrorist knows, and so is wholly dependent on the translator/interpreter, who in turn is getting assistance from a local. It's not hard to imagine a lot of errors and omissions, misunderstandings and mistakes, taking place.

What the military and intelligence community are doing to resolve this issue is unclear. Despite several new government programs to promote language learning, funding being given to schools to create or improve training for Arabic and other critical needs foreign languages, and recruiting of people who know these languages, there is little improvement so far. Since language learning is a long, arduous process, the results may not be visible for years. Unfortunately that is a long time to wait to find out what said what.

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