Bad linguists shape outcomes, raise blood pressure


Click the image to watch.

Earlier today I linked a video shot by a Guardian reporter covering soldiers with the 173rd Airborne as they attempt counterinsurgency in a difficult area of Afghanistan. The reporter’s narration is a bit overwrought, as are the snippets of Hopalong Cassidy background music littering the edit. But the video ably documents two significant hurdles to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: the absence of a ‘COIN attitude’ in a given ISAF unit, and terrible interpreters.

The first problem is not particularly common among the units I’ve embedded with, though it does exist. Some people have ‘it’ and others don’t — ‘it’ being defined as the preternatural patience to engage the population with professionalism and an open mind, even when it’s pretty obvious that they know who is shooting at you on a regular basis. The reactions of the sergeant featured in that clip are understandable, but the man doesn’t have requisite reserves of ‘it.’

The problem with bad interpreters is much more significant, and is endemic to the fight in southern Afghanistan. Though complaints about the quality and quantity of linguists were legion and often justified in Iraq, the shortage of good interpreters in that conflict pales in comparison to the deficiency in Afghanistan. During my summer embed in Helmand, I met only one Pashto interpreter who had what I would consider reasonable English skill, vs. a dozen more who were minimally, if at all, understandable. This added tremendous ambiguity to interviews, the recordings of which were often played back for the lone skillful interpreter, who revealed what the interviewees were really saying.

The more serious consequences of how this miscommunication can derail counterinsurgency efforts are illustrated perfectly by the clip, specifically the exchange that begins at 3:30.

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  • blert says:

    This is not a trivial matter at all.
    The National Command Authority is letting us all down.
    This strategic shortfall should have long been addressed.
    I’d start off with tele-translation.
    I’d also have LONG AGO started a program of cross-cultural exchange.
    Here and there SOME Afghanis need to be brought back to the World and turned into translators.
    It is more important for the translators to know perfect local dialect and idiom than perfect English. Get it?
    When Soyuz and Apollo linked up the Americans spoke Russian — the Russians spoke American ( not British ) English. No matter how crippled our Russian was corrected and understood by Russians. No matter how crippled their English was corrected and understood by our Astronauts.
    THAT’S how it’s done.
    Now, let’s do it!

  • ArneFufkin says:

    An additional challenge is that Afghans as a population are overwhelmingly (around 80% nationally and up tp 98% in some remote regions) illiterate so even mundane requests, notices, reports and other vital communications need to be accurately, repeatedly and often individually verbalized to and by the locals.
    That’s a tough COIN conundrum in any landscape as diverse and geographically large as Afghanistan.

  • E says:

    Allot goes into the “terp”/ troop relationship. The troop’s primary objective, getting out alive vs. securing the local population, is something the terp will pick up on. The terp will act in a way to ensure his survival. Reciprocity and trust are important. This is very true when the terp is going through the OJT process while a good percentage of the troops are on thier first deployment.
    Word for word/ translate as you speak is the type utilized by people with lots of money. These terps have better things to do. It’s just a fact of the linguist economy.

  • crosspatch says:

    What are they doing these days at DLI? Aren’t they turning out any Pashto and Dari speakers? And why aren’t we training Afghans in English as in complete immersion — fly them back to someplace in Wyoming or Utah in the mountains, maybe a place that resembles their home areas — and have them speaking good English in a year or two.

  • Eric Waxman says:

    Was this video report by John McHugh filed in 2008? If so, please indicate the date. The task is grueling but more recent reports indicate some progress.

  • Charu says:

    While it may not be ready for prime time as yet, there are some impressive smart phone aps that translate on the fly. The solution may be nearer than you think.

  • F says:

    A compounding issue (and this is based on 3-year old experience, so maybe things have changed) is that the interpreters mostly came from cities, where they had the education opportunities to learn English. They tended to look down on the rural villagers, didn’t know one end of a shovel from another, and often missed the nuances of agrarian problems, thus aggravating already tenuous communications. It took a while to figure that out, and we never did find a solution to that problem.

  • Just a guy downrange. says:

    Hey Charu,
    Does your ‘app’ do Korengali?
    Oh wait… DLI doesn’t even do Krengali… Nor does Rosetta Stone or any University Language program I know of.
    From over here (AFG) I’d say the issue with Terps has not gotten any better. I got to be good friends last summer with a guy in his late 20s (Afghan heritage, US citizen) who has been embedded as a contract linguist (with a clearance) since 2005.
    He even admitted that it took him a LOT of practice and hard work to get his Dari and Pashto up to where he could do accurate simultaneous translation on they fly in situations like a a firefight.
    I had heard about that same time about the fraud issues with MEP and WWLR who were (are?) running the linguist contract over here.
    When I asked him about it he confirmed this and stated that in his opinion a vast majority of the other translators he’s observed and worked with are nowhere near competent.
    Even more concerning is that quite a few of the ones who were competent were intentionally not translating information accurately or exactly either out of laziness or malicious intent.
    Folks, very soon we are going on Year TEN in this thing.
    We should be up to our eyeballs in US military folks who are fluent – not passable but FLUENT in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and we should have at least a few who are decent in oddball dialects like Korengali.
    The last administration just wanted everyone to go back to shopping and didn’t want to give us what we really needed.
    My two cents.


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