I always hated this part
Published on January 17, 2007 By greywar In Current Events

*Edited for many typos.    

     Korean dancer in a bar speaking to Greywar (in Korean): "This guy is ugly and stupid but at least he bought me a night off."

     Greywar's nonlinguist friend : "What did she say?"

     Greywar : "She thinks you're cute."

     Lesson : Translators oftentimes have their own agendas. In the above conversation my agenda was to preserve my friend's good time and avoid conflict. Harmless in this case but not all translators agendas are quite so innocuous.

     My friends and some of my long time readers already know that I am a linguist and worked in intelligence for many years but it bears repeating for those who don't know. I have also written a bit on language and translation work as it applies to military intelligence here.

     All of this introductory prep is simply there so I can avoid rehashing the entirety of previous work while I highlight this recent article by Amir Taheri in the NY Post. In it Mr. Taheri starts with a brief anecdote: (emphasis mine)

"January 15, 2007 -- JUST outside Um al-Qasar, a port in south east Iraq, a crowd had gathered around a British armored car with a crew of four. An argument seemed to be heating up through an interpreter.

The interpreter told the Brits that the crowd was angry and wanted U.K. forces out of Iraq. But then a Kuwaiti representative of Amnesty International, accompanied by a journalist friend, approached - and found the crowd to be concerned about something quite different.

The real dispute? The day before, a British armored vehicle had an accident with a local taxi; now the cab's owner, backed by a few friends, was asking the Brits to speed up compensating him. Did these Iraqis want the Brits to leave, as the interpreter pretended? No, they shouted, a thousand times no! "

 

     Unfortunately this anecdote is anything but a rarity. My old unit ran into this sort of thing is a more subtle way during our stay in Balad. In a nutshell there was a local Iraqi man who was organizing work crews of other Iraqis for the base there. He was the only one who spoke English so he was the only one being dealt with directly by the office on post responsible for this action. No one in the office spoke Arabic either of course so the only person who knew what was being said on both sides was this man whom I will call "Ted".

     Ted would charge the base an amount of cash for the work being done by his crews and then disburse payment to his workers on his own. This led to Ted pocketing 80% of the day's payroll and paying his workers a pittance. This horrid situation went on for about a year with the workers growing more and more discontent with they pay they were receiving. They of course thought that the US was responsible and thought of them as slaves or something to that effect since they had no inkling of Ted's embezzlement.

     Vince Colangelo changed all that. He did speak Arabic and saw right away what the scam was as Ted had grown very bold and was completely confident that he didn't have to hide it from Americans since they were all clueless. Vince got Ted fired and dealt directly with the workers themselves. This lead to much higher wages for the workers, a background check so they could be vetted for more work, and a massive change in the workers perception of America. We went from being perceived as unfair overlords to lucrative business partners and friends within the space of a month.

     This illustrates a massive problem in the military today : The availability of skilled and reliable translation. There are very few Arabic linguists in the Army and even fewer who are any good at it. As a result US forces and other assets like reporters are at the mercy of their guides and translators from the local populace many of whom have very contradictory agendas.

     Even outside Iraq in intelligence missions involving Arabic translations this problem is rampant. Many times the translator is terribly biased one way or the other and this dramatically effects their work. I have more on this to write at a later time but I wanted to get this bit out of the way as a means of re-introducing the topic to any new readers.

Site Meter
Comments
on Jan 17, 2007
Have so gotta dig out my old books and start over again before I go over.........
on Jan 17, 2007
Actually that year is probably not "necessary" just useful. As for the spellign errors, you are correct, I had to post this is a hurry and didn't have time to go back and proof it. I will now though, thanks for the help on that bit.
on Jan 17, 2007

Ok, now that my typos are fewer in number....

LW - To be honest even doing the Rosetta Stone courses and a few Berlitz courses in Farsi along with seeking out a native speaker to practice with here in the U.S. would probably put you in the upper percentile of non-native speakers. If you are also willing to work overseas or travel extensively as part of the job the opportunities are endless.

There are plenty of Iranian ex-pats here in the U.S. who would likely be very willing to tutor you (many for free).

on Jan 18, 2007
Have you heard about the hand-held translators that came out of the DARPA challenge? There was one on TV the other day. It looked like a palm pilot and they had some angry Arab guy yell something at the soldier and it spat it back out to him. Seemed pretty handy, and I guess it would be a lot more objective than the human alternative.

On the other hand, it wouldn't have helped much in the situation you describe above, though, I guess, lol...
on Jan 18, 2007
Greywar: "There are very few Arabic linguists in the army."

As I live in Egypt I am trying to learn Arabic. It is not the easiest language to learn. A simple English word can be a phrase of 4 or 5 words in Arabic. I'm getting there---very slowly.
on Jan 18, 2007
As I live in Egypt I am trying to learn Arabic.


Keep it up, Al Misri loves company..............
on Jan 18, 2007

Seemed pretty handy, and I guess it would be a lot more objective than the human alternative.

They have been working on techno alternatives like this for years but i have never seen one do well with any range of audio unless it had been trained to that speaker extensively. Text translators have come a long way but often in Arabic (where vowels are often skipped entirely) and other languages the context is what actually determines the meaning.

 

DARPA would have the best ones available though, I helped on a project of theirs in a similar vein many years ago.

on Jan 18, 2007

Al Misri loves company..............

 

God that is horrible.

on Jan 18, 2007
Seemed pretty handy, and I guess it would be a lot more objective than the human alternative.


Depends where you get the interpreter from. Accredited interpreters (ie professionals) are tested and trained to remove themselves from the translation process. They're far more accurate and just as objective as any machine too, which is a bonus. I'm guessing though they don't have a lot of desire to go into a warzone. The interpreters and translators I know aren't the kind to risk their cardigans.
on Jan 18, 2007
Text translators have come a long way but often in Arabic (where vowels are often skipped entirely) and other languages the context is what actually determines the meaning.


The EU has some good ones, but I wouldn't trust them very much with any language whose grammar is much different from English.
on Jan 18, 2007
Do you know anyone who has used that pretty much exclusively?
No, but I do know several people who have been very sucessful with self study alone for both Arabic and Farsi. Frankly linguistic ability seemss to matter a lot more than curriculum. If you have the gift for languages you will likely do well with any approach and if you don't have the gift it is unlikely that any amount of training will do much more than give you the basics. As a side note, the Army is offering the full catalog of all Rosetta Stone's courses through Army E-learning's Skillport service for free to servicepeople.
on Jan 18, 2007
The one I saw had regional Iraq dialects taken into consideration. Seemed pretty impressive.
on Jan 18, 2007
Rosetta Stone was what I was considering, and your endorsement of the program makes a big difference. Do you know anyone who has used that pretty much exclusively?


I'm planning on getting to it later this year, but I'm working through the Arabic one now as part of a self-imposed study regimen. Because:
the Army is offering the full catalog of all Rosetta Stone's courses through Army E-learning's Skillport service for free to servicepeople.


So, I figure I should make use of it.

Accredited interpreters (ie professionals) are tested and trained to remove themselves from the translation process. They're far more accurate and just as objective as any machine too, which is a bonus. I'm guessing though they don't have a lot of desire to go into a warzone. The interpreters and translators I know aren't the kind to risk their cardigans.


Accurate. Most interpreters (or "terps" as many servicemembers refer to them) are locals who pass a minimal security check. They tend to get fired if they're caught doing the wrong thing (like interpreting to their own liking, tipping off insurgents or pacing off the inside of your camp for more accurate mortar fire). That sort of thing aside, most of the in-country interpreters that I have heard anecdotes of were earnest, eager and did the best they could. What greywar talks about does happen, either through an agenda or just incompetence (these guys are great in Arabic, for example, but might be limited in their grasp of English).
on Jan 19, 2007

And really, isn't that what it all boils down to?


That's been my experience.

Learning at home will give you the necessary skills to speak a formal, slightly academic version of your language of choice. Realistically speaking that's all most (business/government-oriented) people need. It's only if you want to understand children or the un- or poorly educated that you need in-country experience. It makes sense too - most language programs are written by academics of one sort or another, so naturally they are going to give you their accent and their vocabulary.
Meta
Views
» 852
Comments
» 14
Category
Sponsored Links