Translation SNAFU

by Translation Guy on November 23, 2011

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.


  1. Dale says:

    Nice post. A good insight into how wasteful the army can be.

    As you say, what good is training skilled interpreters when there are native speakers who may do a better job. It must be remembered that the cost is not only the training for the interpreter, but the cost to ship them out to the warzone and then to pay for them to live there for 8 weeks.

    Thanks for sharing,

    – Dale

    • Ken says:

      As you say Dale, outsourcing and automation are the secret weapons of translation value on any front.

  2. Native speakers would be best if you were looking to get information from natives, but trust would be an issue for me. Maybe if you too young recruits and moved them to countries all over the world to work and hone their language skills, then brought them back to be the translaters?/ Just a thought.

  3. Melanie Bell says:

    The whole war is a waste of money, but I’m not any happier when I see that Uncle Sam spends billions on contractors for translation when tax money is already being spent to traine millitary personnel to do this! Ugh.

  4. Linguists in the war zone should practice their skill just as others practice shooting their rifles to stay sharp. Only makes sense to practice what your trained for.

  5. Hallucinogen says:

    Why doesn’t the army just put certain soldiers on a track and the only thing they ever do is translation. Why would they even be sent to locations where they would do anything but what they were trained for?

  6. Kerry Nixon says:

    Ha! Good to see the millitary is “developing” regionally aligned brigades…just in time for President Obama to bring them all home.

  7. Benjamin says:

    It’s not just the military that don’t use workers with language skills the best way, it’s all forms of business. Too much politics to wade through to make the best decisions for the company. Many wokers who could benefit most, often end up doing something else.

  8. Why am I not surprised that the military hasn’t figured out a way to best use soldiers that are multiligual. I mean, aren’t all of the wars in foreign lands where knowing the other language and communicating with the people of that region be bendficial!

  9. Sheila Coley says:

    Thanks for the thread. I wasn’t sure how this worked, but I see now that a lot of the translation is done by private contractors over in Irag and other places. I would have thought it would be strictly millitary personnel because of the nature of the information that might be discussed.

  10. Edward says:

    I just wish this country saw the importance of people being multiligual and made it more of a priority in schools. By the time kids graduate they not only should know English inside and out, but also a good grasp on another language – not just a 1 or 2 semester requirement.

    • Ken says:

      I set the bar a little lower, Ed. If we landed a man on the moon, we should be able to produce college grads that can right an English sentence. How many trillions could it cost?

  11. Hard to believe that it’s only since 9-11 that the millitary has been trying to train people in languages. I would think that it would be smart business to have always trained many people in just about every other language there is that was from a country we might someday go to war with. Just my thinking.

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