Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
‘Terps Shooting Blanks
September 10, 2010 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Interpretation - Comments Off on ‘Terps Shooting Blanks

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. )

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