‘Terps Shooting Blanks

by Translation Guy on September 10, 2010

More than a quarter of Afghan linguists provided for the US Army by a translation service were hired despite failing linguistic tests, it was revealed on Nightline last night. The allegations were made in a whistleblower suit by a former employee of a company that holds contracts worth up to $1.4 billion to supply interpreters to the military.

“I determined that someone―and I didn’t know [who] at that time―was changing the grades from blanks or zeros to passing grades,” said Paul Funk, who used to oversee the screening of Afghan linguists for the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP). “Many who failed were marked as being passed.”

Funk claims that the company turned a blind eye to cheating on the language exams taken over the phone and hired applicants even though they failed to meet language standards established by the army and outlined in the employment contract, a charge that the company denies.

Marc Peltier, MEP’s COO, showed ABC an internal company survey that showed that 82% of its customers were satisfied with the performance of its translators. That Marc considers this to somehow be proof of quality is smoking gun proof of incompetence and malfeasance in my books.

The dirty secret of the translation business is that most times clients don’t know that their interpreter is no good BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW WTF THE INTERPRETER IS SAYING!  Interpreters thus tend to be evaluated on appearance and demeanour in the culture of the client. In a war zone, I can imagine a band-of-brothers effect: your ‘terp is eating the same dust you are, scared the same way you are, so naturally you’ve got his back when you are filling out the evaluation. Your life depends on this guy, and you have no idea he is interpreting you into a death trap, until you catch an IED that he didn’t catch wind of in his last conversation. And even after detonation, you still won’t know.

So with all that, they are doing only 82%? My project managers tend to find themselves looking for new work when their own scores dip below 95% and we get all over any problem of any kind. Even one bad translation can get a linguist crossed off our list. While we are exceptional in this regard, we know most of our competitors are committed to providing good service every time. I don’t know what metrics these MEP guys are employing, but any firm that can only satisfy four out of five clients is going to close shop unless they’ve got a fat contract from the gov’mint. Which seems to be the case here.

Marc boasts that MEP has been successful in achieving a 97% fill rate for Army requirements, as opposed to 43% of competitors. Another smoking gun, because here’s the second dirty secret of translation agencies: It’s all the same pool. We all hire the same guys for our clients. You’ve got sky-high rates of illiteracy in Pashto and Dari, societies denied higher education by generations of warfare, and a limited number of guys with the qualifications and willingness to put their lives at risk, even if they do pull down 200K annually. The more MEP hires, the more they make. But anyone can hire incompetents (aka “community translators”), since the field is swarmed with them. The only value added for a language service provider is that we are supposed to know better and protect our clients from their linguistic ignorance.

I suppose that whistleblower Funk could just be in a money-grabbing funk with his lawsuit, as Peltier claims. The jury is still out on MEP. But you’ll excuse this rant when the lives of American soldiers and Afghan citizens are being lost right now on account of bad interpreters.

Watch the Nightline video for some chilling check translation.  I’m sure readers would be interested in hearing translation war stories from those who have served in Afghanistan.  So please get in touch.

Tip ‘o the hat to Jeremy Blaustein for turning me on to this. (I really appreciate suggestions from friends and readers on topics of interest, the juicier the better. I can’t write up all of them, but I really appreciate every pitch I get. Thanks. )


  1. Juan Steele says:

    Pashto and Dari are spoken by the majority, but with around 30 minor languages spoken, and numerous dialects, the problem becomes even more compounded. With decent translators being evidently in short supply, and any loss crippling to their attached unit, perhaps they could establish a ‘reserve’ by utilizing technology, and pre-recording the standard questions and communicating with the native population that way. Though not a flexible solution it’s better than nowt at all, at least until a viable long-term program of quality translators can be employed.

  2. This whole “contractor” thing is a sad and dangerous joke. “Contractors” (mercenaries) running around, blowing away anyone they choose as the play army for huge salaries. Marines “guarding” embassies in their pretty costumes while we hire mercenaries to do the actual work. Now we have interpreters who can’t interpret and translators who can’t translate. I wonder if the Pentagon knows the difference. Or cares!

  3. Are you kidding me? To hire any translator that is not American is asinine. How Dare We. It is unbelievable to me that we would actually pay anyone from those counties to translate for us. If we cant train our men to learn the language we are at a major disadvantage. We put our men in danger and possible “ambush” as I don’t think they can be trusted especially in time of war! But to pay these incompetence a salary of 210k annually is totaly obsurd to me. This “war” needs to be over before any more of our men lose their lives. To keep sending our hard and needed money to that region is backwards to our recovery

  4. Donna Rice says:

    In all fairness the Army rates linguists from Level 1 (barely able to explain simple things) to Level 5 (native fluency). I would guess that most of these were legitimate level 1

  5. It’s bad enough that we have a contracting company sending bad translators, but it makes me mad as HECK that our military doesn’t kick them out. The boots on the ground need to step up and reject contractors that can’t do the job.

  6. Miriam Wong says:

    Americans must understand that a linguist capability is not easily developed. A good interpreter is a rarity because it takes more than just familiarity with the gramatical aspects of the languages, it takes understanding of idioms and culture. To find one person “fully competent” in two languages is not easy. As one becomes proficient in one language he/she will lose proficiency in the other. Add to this the technical aspects of proper translation which must be taught and practiced to develop proficiency. To pull all these skills together into one translator takes more time than available in a wartime situation. At one time the military maintained “language pools” in the event a particular linguistic need arose. During a time of cost cutting measures these “pools” were disbanded in an effort to save money, the real cost comes now at the price of national security. Perhaps instead of looking for Afghans who speak English it would be better to teach the Afghans English, particularly those involved with security and stability operations.

    • Ken says:

      Most pro ‘terps in the US are way old, Miriam, which proves your point that it takes a long time to get good at interpreting. And US wars tend to be fought among speakers of the less-commonly translated languages, which proves your point about the price of lost language pools. I’m with you on local talent, though. As far as the security concerns about foreign interpreters being Taliban or some other kind of traitor, checking up on interpreters is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is tape them, and play the tape later for another interpreter. That’s how we ferret out the bad seeds in our translation apple. (Victor, its OK to mix metaphors in Translation Guy comments, so I hope you’ll let this one slip thru.) So I wonder if they are doing it. Monitor, boys, monitor!

  7. Is this co. related to the Infamous Blackwater?As a trained health and court interpreter( proper terminology for oral “translation”), I can attest to the need for well prepared knowledgeable licensed, i.e. competency tested nterpreters, it’s not just oral language, live interpreters are cultural brokers in action. Doctors learn to appreciate our work as we can help save lives.

  8. TheAnimal says:

    Dammit , my 19yo nephew, and thousands of other kids are over there. Washington, please start serious investigations and prosecutions of these and the rest of the crooked contractors……….so our young warriors are safer, and we can dry up this huge , dangerous, wasteful spending of tax dollars, yes tax dollars on these non performing military profiteers. Dry up this off – budget spending and we can end this war and bring our boys home………

  9. nobsplease says:

    Welcome to the world of the “Vol Army” where everything is contracted out, and lots of former, often retired military make big bucks and look the other way. Sad but this is the cost of no draft, get used to it.

  10. This is a serious issue that I can’t believe has gone unnoticed until now. I also think that faulty translators are to blame for the lives of soldiers who have been attacked when those types of situations could have been avoided. Wouldn’t people be a little suspicious before now when Afghans’ reactions are unexpected or when responses aren’t making any sense? I think that we should be putting our own soldiers through training to learn the languages that way we can trust them.

  11. Are you kidding me!!! The only trnslators we can and should trust are americans that learn the language however difficult it may be. Most of these overseas contracts are ridiculous and put our men in danger. If the U.S. has been relying on foriegners to translate their own language we should be viewied as the idoits of the world. HOW DARE US. I find it obsurd!! That the U.S. would rely on them to tell us the truth! On top of that to shell out such a salary of 210k a year just flat out stupid.

  12. Jeepers. I hope the Army doesn’t crack down soon. I’ve just finished reading “Dari and Pashto for Dummies” and I’m hoping to find a job.

    • Ken says:

      Catherine…. send me your resume ASAP!

  13. sdsw10 says:

    Wow, I can’t say that I keep up on this sort of news normally, but this is very alarming.

  14. As Ken has mentioned before, there is a difference between “translators” and “interpreters:” translators are trained to deal with the written word, while interpreters are trained to deal with the spoken word. If the military is using trained translators as interpreters, they may not have the optimal staff to support troops in the field.

  15. Its clear to me that the US has fallen gravely behind in this critical area of interpretive translation technology. We must get inefficient govt bureaucrats out of this vitally important area and into the hands of acknowledged experts in private enterprise. Ken, thoughts?

  16. Digital79 says:

    Sounds normal in today’s society. Where money (especially big money) is involved, government is involved, little oversight/accountability is involved, then ethics go right out the window. I applaud the whistleblower and hope the person(s) responsible for the cheating are fired, fined, and sued. In an environment/situation like Afghanistan, being able to communicate effectively with the locals is vital. A “translator” who can’t really translate endangers soldiers and civilians alike, and could lead to loss of life.

  17. Eddie Alva says:

    Government jobs are well paid. Very well paid. That being said, they should pay close attention to the people they hire and make sure they are doing their job right. People’s lives are in danger because the government turns a blind eye to this issue. I was at a live conference meeting today, and it was really frustrating hearing the interpreter pause and make up words so that he could catch up with the native language speaker. He was falling behind and was switched for a different translator in the middle of the native speaker’s sentence. This isn’t only sad but unacceptable. As for foreign translators and interpreters, as long as they are fluent in the language and prove that they can take on the job, they are fine to work anywhere. What does being American have anything to do with it? Professionals exist in different countries too.

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