Afghan Linguistic Allies Stuck in Harm’s Way

by Translation Guy on September 19, 2011

“Terps,” the interpreters who work for coalition forces in Afghanistan, are high-value targets for Taliban insurgents. Since shooting an interpreter in the field often spells the end of a mission by removing a military unit’s ability to communicate with locals, capping an interpreter is all the rage. On those hazardous missions, ‘terps are at least surrounded by soldiers doubly eager to protect their comrades in arms who serve as the eyes and ears of their unit.

But danger doesn’t stop for an interpreter once he removes his flak jacket and returns home to his family. They are still at great risk in Afghanistan, so the US government’s Afghan Allies program was created to get these guys and their families stateside and out of harm’s way. But “the record is not great,” said David D. Pearce, assistant chief of mission at the US embassy in Kabul. Talk about diplomatic understatement. Number of visas issues so far? One. Pearce promises to break the logjam.

Jack Healy reports in the NYT that this “long, uneasy wait has frustrated many Afghans employed by the United States, who said they felt neglected after risking their safety and that of their families to work with Americans in war-torn sections of the country. The Taliban have brazenly killed Afghan civilians, even children, with ties to coalition forces.”

Maya Hess, president of the Red T, which “raises awareness of the plight of translators and interpreters working in high-risk settings,” did a virtual interview with Healy. (Disclosure: I’m on the board for Red T, which is how I got these notes from Maya.) The total number of special immigrant visas authorized for 2011 was 5000, but only 154 visas had been issued to conflict zone linguists and others who aided US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only three were issued to Afghans. There is great ignorance about the visa process and limited or not access to the internet by Afghans.

Maya’s research reveals that Afghan ‘terps are exposed to intimidation and daily threats of abduction, torture and death. “Compound that exposure with being out of the information loop, they don’t know how to start the process, to gain the security for their families that they are entitled to. They are getting increasingly desperate due to the announced US troop withdrawal.”

Maya has asked me to ask fellow translators and language fans reading this post for your help in supporting those translators in harm’s way.  As the very smallest token of support, would you take a moment to provide a “like” to the Red T, to increase Maya’s clout when she talks to policy makers in a position to help our brethren and sistren who so courageously man the language barrier on our behalf? Click here. Thanks.


  1. Arthur says:

    Check out ABC News’ report from last year claiming a lot of the US translators working in Afghanistan actually couldn’t speak the language well. And these are translators working out on the battlefields, communicating (or not!) very important information. No wonder the US has been there so long…the communication isn’t clear.

  2. Tina Marsh says:

    Shame on the States for doing this. Although I am not surprised. They have a tendency to simply look after their own needs…

  3. Glenn Phelps says:

    So glad you are bringing attention to this issue. Great post.

  4. No way would I ever take on a job like that. No amount of money could persuade me to do it.

  5. Sandy Golden says:

    Why the hell are we trying so hard to help Afghanistan? When will it be enough? We should just get out and let them deal with their own proplems and not endanger the lives of so many people.

  6. Jackie Ellis says:

    It truly is devastating to read this. It is always those who try to help the most that are suffering and in danger, without support or recourse.

  7. Just today I read an article about translators who translate for celebrities, and here we are at the other spectrum, those that are risking their ives for their jobs.

    • Ken says:

      I didn’t see that Samantha, could you share the link? Everybody loves that stuff.

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