Ingrid Piller writes:

The American broadcaster, ABC News, recently broke a whistleblower report that US army interpreters deployed in Afghanistan often don’t speak the local languages. In fact, up to a quarter of the interpreters hired by a private provider, Mission Essential Personnel, failed basic language tests.

Click on the video below, to watch one such interpreting episode unfold: a Pashto-speaking villager in effect offers to cooperate with US troops but the interpreter makes up an entirely different scenario with the Americans eventually walking away and cursing the villager. No wonder they don’t get anywhere winning the hearts and minds of the locals!


Christian Science Monitor report has some examples of the damage caused by incompetent interpreters: in one case, misinterpreted directions resulted in a mortar attack on the wrong spot. The entire livestock of a village was killed in that attack; US troops paid compensation to the villagers. In another example, a request for shooting illumination flares was misinterpreted as a request for a mortar attack, which resulted in an unspecified number of casualties.

The reasons for these disasters are manifold: to begin with, war interpreting is a lucrative business for the interpreters on the ground but even more so for corporations such as Mission Essential Personnel. Second, Afghanistan is a multilingual country and apparently someone hired as a Dari interpreter may well be then assigned to interpret in a Pashto- or Baluchi-speaking part of the country. Third, army interpreters are often uneducated and inexperienced young men as the more senior interpreters opt for secure employment with the UN or NGOs in Kabul. One of the interpreters tells how he learnt English by selling cigarettes to soldiers outside Bagram Airbase. He was only 16 when someone asked him whether he spoke Dari and Pashto. He said “yes” and, voila, he had a new job as army interpreter.

Would anyone have given him a job as, say, an accountant? “Hey, are you good at maths?” “Yes!” “Beaut! I’ve got a job for you as an army account.” Wouldn’t happen because everyone understands the need for accountants to be properly trained, qualified and to have substantial experience for a high-stakes role. (R.L.G. makes a similar point on The Economist’s language blog). By contrast, decision makers in the US army are seemingly so naive about language and communication skills that they think nothing of putting the lives of civilians and soldiers, indeed the entire outcome of the operation, into the hands of untrained and inexperienced interpreters.

Crosspost from Language on the move

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