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Translation SNAFU
November 23, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Translation SNAFU

Linguistic training of military personal is also in high gear, which as any student of language can tell you, requires a lot of time and effort to learn and to manage. And keeping those skills from getting rusty requires constant polishing.

Former Army Arabic linguist Max Rosenthal found that after two years of training in Arabic, he arrived in Iraq to his intelligence brigade “where the daily routine was one of whiling away a shift with correspondence courses or a good paperback. I got through 35 books in an eight-month tour.” Translation was left to the contractors, perhaps since most of the guys in his unit were Korean speakers.

“Linguists who actually go to war zones spend their time at home in a routine of garrison duties and unrelated training, no different from the rest of Big Army. Honing language skills falls far down the priority list. Many end up failing their yearly re-certification exams,” he says.

Isn’t this how the Army was supposed to work, with all the efficiency and bureaucratic rigor of any government institution, like the Post Office, but with heavy artillery? But now the GAO, the Government Accountability Office, is pointing fingers at the US military brass for failing to keep track of soldier’s linguistic skills and training efforts.

“The Army and Marine Corps do a poor job of tracking how much language and cultural training troops have received, leaving commanders in the dark when it comes time to assign soldiers with these skills,” says the GAO.

Testifying before Congress November 3, Army Staff Director Gen. Peter Baker admitted to problems. Bayer said the deployment cycle makes it difficult to develop conversational language skills in “general-purpose formations.”

He said such skills would be part of the concept of regionally aligned brigades, which the Army is developing. Such formations would correspond with geographic component commands around the world, and give them specialized language and culture training to aid with irregular warfare.

Looking at the problems with just specialist linguist deployment, getting basic language and cultural skills to all the soldiers working with Afghans or other future hot zones sounds like a tall order.

Rosenthal joined the military language program in order to get his Arabic up to cryptographic speed for spook operations with the CIA.

Which made me wonder? Ever since I saw my first WWII movie, I figured being a spook in a second language would be pretty dangerous. The US guys were always catching spies on their pronunciation of “Babe Ruth” and similar dead give-aways.

Years ago, during my one cup ‘o coffee with the CIA, I knew my Japanese wasn’t yet up to snuff to work for “the Company.” I also realized that I wasn’t cut out for the spook stuff, since my handler (my Dad had arranged the luncheon interview) had instructed me to say “company” instead of “CIA,” which I was completely unable to do for the sixty minutes or so of my meeting with the CIA, I mean company.

Rosenthal says about his own military intelligence experience, “If the Army would rather spend hundreds of thousands on contractors to do the job it trained me for, maybe it should just contract out all its language positions. At least then it would get native speakers, who would have a fluency I probably can’t match.

So native speakers would seem to be holding all the cards in the spy game. I guess the benefit is the mix. A bilingual guy can get the local color from the local guy, and then help package it so the brass can push one button or another. That role requires localization skills too for that stretch of the Twilight Zone known as “Inside the Beltway.” They speak a language all their own on Capitol Hill.

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