09 September 2010

Traduttore, traditore! More sad news about military translators in Afghanistan

An ABC News report yesterday offered damning evidence that Mission Essential Personnel, a contractor hiring interpreters to work with US troops in Afghanistan, provided the military with interpreters who have either limited proficiency in Afghan languages (Dari and Pashto) or don't speak much English. Sweeping aside the cinematic illusion that if you say something in English everybody will be on the same page, it's clear that one of the fundamental problems with American involvement in Afghanistan has always been communication.

I tackled the question two years ago in an article for SAJAforum. I analyzed a Guardian video project by John McHugh (who is also quoted in the recent ABC article). The eight-minute long video is subtitled so you can watch the dysfunction unfold in real-time as the translator consistently misrepresents the words of the Afghan civilians to the American soldiers and vice versa. Numerous opportunities for constructive engagement are lost. The shred of mutual trust on either side at beginning doesn't survive the translation.
Mission Essential Personnel holds $1.4 billion in contracts from the US Government and has received good performance reviews but something is very wrong. Paul Funk, formerly in charge of the company's vetting of applicants, has admitted in a whistleblower lawsuit that potential hires were allowed to cheat on language proficiency exams and others were hired despite not meeting the Army's standards. The company's CEO has bragged that MEP "was able to achieve a 97 percent fill rate of the government's requirement for linguists. Previous contractors never exceeded 43 percent." However, considering that the pool of American citizens who are fluent in Dari or Pashto is not exactly teeming, this seems far too good to be true. (I deal with why US citizenship matters in this context in my SAJAforum piece.) Although MEP denies it and the lawsuit is still pending, the company seems to have hired unqualified people to fill the ranks and that at the incredible salary of over $200,000 per year. For that much, I could almost be persuaded to use my academic training in Persian and Urdu to learn Dari, which is a dialect of Persian. I'd easily make three times what my starting salary as an assistant professor would be. 

But sadly the problem is even bigger than MEP. When the company's representative saw The Guardian's video, he denied that the interpreter had been hired by MEP. If we take him at his word then the other hiring processes for interpreters are also suspect.

I can't overstate how important interpreters are. As the sole link between Afghan and American, civilian and military, an interpreter is a tremendously powerful asset. Unless we're content for our troops to resort to non-verbal communication like cavemen then they have to have embedded interpreters. But they need good interpreters since incompetent ones compress prolix and nuanced exchanges into one word answers. The interpreter has to decide what's important, what messages are worth passing on or passing over. The ABC News piece quotes US Army Sgt. Genevieve Chase describing this phenomenon:
Chase said Army units quickly identified interpreters who could not do their jobs. She recalled odd exchanges where Afghan elders would speak at great length and the interpreter would turn to the American soldiers and translate, "He said, 'Okay.'" 
A failure rate of 28%, which is Funk's estimate for MEP's hires between November 2007 and June 2008, would be unacceptable for any piece of military hardware. This is a scandal. If "nation-building" was ever in the cards for Afghanistan, how the hell were we going to do it without being able to talk to Afghans?


Bonus: More bad news for anyone looking for moral consistency in whatever we're calling the "War on Terror" now. The trial of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen held at Guantánamo who was just fifteen when he was accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan, has been derailed again. Was it a another question arising from his age? No. Canadian diplomatic involvement? No. The problem, according to Foreign Policy, is that he is being charged with a war crime, "fighting without a uniform," and Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, has pointed out that the CIA and private contractors who work with the US Military don't wear uniforms either. Theoretically this could lead to their prosecution as well. Once again rather than questioning the ethics of how we wage war, we try to hold others accountable using rules that we think are too "quaint" (to quote Alberto Gonzales on the Geneva Conventions) to apply to us.

1 comment:

Savings said...

The company's responded pretty well to these accusations.


The dude criticizing them is also suing them for a lot of money. Conflict of interest much?