Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sailors as Ad Hoc Linguists

After the last three posts about ‘terps’, I thought I would move away from warfare. But not quite yet. However, this time it’s a very different context and about a different arm of the Defense establishment, the US Navy.

The technological bent of modern warfare has led to a need for highly educated officers. Often they're encouraged to go back to university and study for higher degrees. As a by-product of this upgrading, they produce interesting research material. For example, the very first thesis I ever came across about machine translation was by a Canadian Armed Forces officer, André Gouin. It was an evaluation of an early version of the now familiar SYSTRAN (, and that was in 1970.

Forty years later comes a thesis by an American naval officer that highlights the potential value of Natural and Native Translators among US Navy personnel. Not that the author, Michael F. D’Angelo, uses those terms. Instead he speaks of “Sailors who possess the native foreign language skills and cultural background,” as well, of course, as English. The Navy needs many ‘linguists’ and for various functions. There’s a good historical section where D’Angelo traces them back to diplomatic interpretation in the late 19th century for missions such as Commodore Perry’s, which opened up Japan to the West. The function, however, with which the thesis is mostly concerned is the modern one of Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI). Basically the CTI is a cryptologist who works on breaking the codes of foreign navies and decoding their intercepted communications. It’s a role that first became crucial even before Pearl Harbour in connection with Japanese. CTIs are expected to translate – that’s the Interpretive in their title – and must therefore know the languages of the encoded messages. They are trained for two years, first in the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, California, and then in one of the Navy’s several Language Centers of Excellence. The intensive training turns out Professional Experts, and as such they pass beyond the scope of this blog.

But there’s a problem. Because of their foreign language proficiency, CTIs are frequently and increasingly called on to “perform foreign language duties outside of their core intelligence analyst competencies, such as translator or interpreter,” One way to meet the demand might be to increase the number of CTIs. But that would be wasteful and in the end unsatisfactory for two reasons:
a) the length and expense of the CTIs’ training, and

b) the Top Secret security clearance that CTIs must hold. (We saw in the July 18 post how this requirement affected the recruitment of Army interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Meanwhile, D’Angelo argues, there’s a large untapped resource of Sailors without the security clearance who don’t need language training because they’re native speakers of a foreign language and who furthermore possess the cultural background that goes with it. Something about the extent of the resource is known from a 2005 Navy self-assessment survey (see References). For the rest,
“This thesis investigates how to optimize resident naval foreign language and cultural diversity and proposes alternative recruitment, training, employment, and retention methods. It recommends that the Navy develop a Translator/Interpreter rating for those ineligible for security clearances, reinstitute the Warrant Officer-1 rank, and pay ad hoc linguists.”
Ad hoc linguists – ah, there’s another term for non-Expert but useful interpreters and translators.

Lt. Michael F. D’Angelo (United States Navy Reserve). Options for Meeting U.S. Navy Foreign Language and Cultural Expertise Requirements in the Post 9/11 Security Environment. MSc dissertation, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA, 2009. 137p.
D’Angelo is himself a Farsi CTI.

Capt. André R. Gouin (Canadian Armed Forces). French to English Machine Translation System Based Upon Digital Computer Software Programs (SYSTRAN). MSc dissertation, School of Engineering, AirForce Institute of Technology, United States Air Force, 1970. 53 p.

One-Time Self-Assessment of Foreign Language Skills. NAVADMIN 275/05, October 18, 2005.

Evening Colors at the Defense Language Institute, Presidio of Monterey, Monterey CA, 1984.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Go-Betweens (conclusion)

For the earlier instalments of this summary, see the two previous posts.

The middle part of Michael Griffin's chapter is devoted to another kind of interpreter: fixers. Fixers are local liaison interpreters working for journalists and other media people.
“The journalist’s ‘fixer’ was a facilitator of a different order. Like the military interpreter, he (they were all men) translated local history, personal reputation, cultural difference and situational dynamics – as well as words – into a language their employers could understand, weighing what was said for ingots of truth and shades of deceit. How he formulated those words was more sophisticated than the Q&A of military interviews or the instant translation of commands. Fixers reached beyond the restrictions of an officer’s enquiry about security, for example, to search for the angles, coincidences, character defects or human tragedies that would interest their own employer, the reporter, who − after all − was only a more specialised kind of translator, working in print or image, for an expectant, paying audience.”
Many fixers are a prime examples of Professional Translators who start out as Natural or Native Interpreters, and who quickly become advanced Native Interpreters by experience if they’re to survive, but who do not have any training or professional credentials. In fact they are even less likely to receive training than the military terps. They are native speakers of the local languages, but their second language speech, almost always English, need not be very correct, because in any case what they say will be filtered and polished professionally by their employers.
“Javed Yazamy – ‘Jojo’ to his Canadian clients – was a teenager janitor at a US Special Forces compound in 2001, who was hired as a terp when the Americans heard his refugee-camp English. He spent the next two years pursuing bin Ladin through the eastern mountains with his new friends. After the fall of the Taliban, TV networks offered him work as a fixer.”
What the fixers do need above all is contacts.
“The fixer was under constant pressure from his clients and their need for ever closer contact with actors who, while likely to spare the contractor, would nonchalantly annihilate his translator.”
On the other hand, there are fixers who are already Native Translators from their education and their background in other media activities.
“Many fixers had previously worked in aid, acquiring skills in journalism, logistics or IT and – the most crucial skill of all – social ease with westerners. Sultan Munadi, a fixer-turned-journalist for the New York Times since 2002, had begun as a press officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Panjshir Valley during the Taliban era and was working on a master’s degree at the time of his death.”
There have already been several posts on this blog about fixers. To find them, enter fixers in the Search box on the right. The last part of the chapter, however, introduces something that was new to me, a type of military-sponsored communication that we might call military cultural interpretation. It flourished under the impulse of two outstanding figures. One was General David Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan until a few days ago, who himself had graduated in sociology. The other was Montgomery McFate, an American woman who had won a scholarship to study anthropology at Berkeley. Having pondered, ‘How do I make anthropology relevant to the military?’ she
“won a fellowship in the Office of Naval Research in 2004 where she was asked by the 4th Infantry Division for advice on interpreting Iraqis’ cultural behaviour in the Sunni Triangle.”
The Americans were waking up to the realisation that they must win hearts as well as firefights and that they must seek to understand both their enemies and their allies.
“In 2006, McFate contributed 50 pages of analysis on the use of ‘cultural knowledge’ and ‘intelligence preparation of the battlefield’ to FM 3-24, the first manual on counter-insurgency (COIN) to be published in 20 years. As commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas from 2005, General David Petraeus had overseen the manual’s composition and publication in December 2006, before taking command of US forces in Iraq“
McFate’s ideas on ‘armed social science‘, along with those of an Australian army officer, David Kilcullen, who also had a doctorate in anthropology, blossomed into the Human Terrain System (HTS), which was composed, in the field, of Human Terrain Teams. For a while it absorbed a great deal of funding and resources starting in Iraq, where Petraeus said, “‘The HTTs have evolved into important elements in our operations .” Nevertheless, HTS was regarded with suspicion not only by some of the military but also by the American Anthropological Association.

The question I ask myself is how the HTS input could be gathered without yet another kind of liaison interpreter, the native informants used by virtually all anthropologists working in the field away from home. But that’s another story.

There’s a great deal more, and many moving personal histories, in Michael Griffin’s chapter than I’ve room to summarise. I have to move on. We must just hope his book finds a publisher soon. I thank him for letting me quote from it.

Michael Griffin. The go-betweens. In The Broken Road: America's War in Afghanistan, forthcoming.
Michael’s email address is

Ajmal Naqshbandi, a still from Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, a prizewinning documentary film by Ian Olds, 2009. See
Naqshbandi was killed by Taliban while he was working as fixer for an Italian journalist.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Go-Betweens (continued)

The many reports and descriptions of the terps and the dangers they run are scattered through innumerable newspaper articles, memoirs, etc., even films and TV documentaries. The merit of Michael Griffin’s painstaking research is that he brings a large amount of it together in a single chapter, and so gives us a more overall picture. There are many insights.

First the sheer numbers, the expenditure they entailed and the abuses that it led to. One of the American contractors (see below), Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel (MEP),
“was awarded a $414 million contract to supply 1,691 translators and interpreters over five years…. One terp posted that MEP earned a $200,000 bonus for every translator sent, even if they only served a month.”
”Since 1999, the US Department of Defense had outsourced its linguistic needs to BTG in a $4.5 billion, five-year contract that San Diego-based Titan Systems Corporation inherited when it purchased the company two tears later. When Titan lost the contract after an overcharging scandal in 2004, it went to L-3 Communications, which had acquired Titan in 2005.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that for the first time, interpreting and translation had become a commodity, to be bundled, exploited and passed around in the commercial world along with any other goods the military would buy. (For more on Titan, enter Titan in the Search box on the right.)

There was also deception:
“‘Oh no, no, no,’ one MEP recruiter told an Afghan-American. ‘You’re not a soldier. Not at all. You’re not on the battlefield.’ The candidate was told he would only translate for US officers in schools, mosques and hospitals, and could refuse any assignment he didn’t like.”
And the reality?
“In Iraq, where statistics were more comprehensive, terps were 10 times more likely to be killed than US troops and 200 had been murdered by 2006... By September 2008, 24 MEP translators had been killed and 56 injured in a single year.”
It was obviously out of the question to maintain high standards at any price in the face of such pressing needs, potential profits and shortened life expectancy.
“Said Cpl. William Woodall from Dallas. ‘Instead of looking for quality, the companies are just pushing bodies out here and, once they’re out of the door, it’s not their problem anymore.’”
In addition to the language requirements, there was a less obvious constraint. This was the need to “pass the necessary security checks if they were to handle the CIA’s intelligence documents.” As a result, the outsource contractors like Titan “focused on recruiting Afghans with US citizenship” rather than locals. But the Afghan language mainly required was Pashtu and “there were only 7,700 native speakers of Pashtu in the United States, according to the 2000 census, and few came forward.” That’s why there are so many stories like that of “Torpekay ‘Peggy’ Farhamg, a Las Vegas croupier and security guard, [who] spent three years at FOB Kalgash, translating Taliban websites and receiving local visitors.” It‘s even said that ”many recruits passed the language test by paying a native Pashtu-speaker to take it for them on the phone.”

“A re-evaluation of the field value of the terp began in 2008, triggered by military officers via their anonymous blogs. These posts recounted their authors’ personal reliance on interpreters, as mentors and comrades on the field of battle, and were a way of repaying a debt of honour. ‘Your interpreter is way more important than your weapon,’ said Cory Shultz, a major embedded with ANA forces in Paktika, since a good interpreter gave him command over hundreds of soldiers. ‘Those units with the strongest interpreters were, by and large, the ones most able to meet their mission goals,’ wrote Rick. They were ‘essential, courageous and under-appreciated’; ‘my eyes and ears on the street’; ‘he saved my life more than once’.”
Military interpreters are liaison interpreters, and like all good liaison interpreters they contribute more than language proficiency. But in addition they need great courage.

The untrained Natural Interpreters often became hardened Native and even Expert Interpreters with time and experience. Nevertheless, they felt that their contribution was going unappreciated:
“‘Unfortunately Americans never care about their interpreters,’ wrote Dvid, who received night letters threatening his life, ‘and that is why they lost all the good interpreters … now they are left with those low-quality interpreters who don’t know anything about their jobs."
The latter part of Michael Griffin’s chapter is taken up with two other kinds of interpreting. I’ll deal with them next time.

To be concluded.

Michael Griffin. The go-betweens. In The Broken Road: America's War in Afghanistan, forthcoming. All the qotations above are from this source.

Reaping the Whirlwind, cover of Michael Griffin's earlier book about Afghanistan.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Go-Betweens

Back in 2009, this blog carried several posts about the military interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq and the risks, often fatal, that they ran. To find the posts, enter Afghanistan, Iraq and fixer in the Search box to the right. If I haven’t done more of them, it’s because the kidnappings and deaths have become depressingly routine. Only last week, El País newspaper carried a report about a Spanish air force officer who sold the press a video of an attack in which two Spanish soldiers were killed along with their interpreter.

One recent result of the earlier posts is that Michael Griffin, already author of a thoroughly researched book about the wars in Afghanistan (see References), has generously sent me an advance chapter of another book he’s writing, and that chapter’s specifically about the interpreters.
“At every interface between civilian and foreigner in any overseas war, success is determined by the fallible but indispensable software supplied by the interpreter – a ‘terp’ in US military slang. Consider the countless messages transmitted back and forth daily – sometimes under fire, always in situations of extreme vigilance – between ordinary Afghans and the 125,000 NATO forces and private contractors deployed in September 2009; then add in the translations required by the diplomatic, development, media, security and logistics communities, to name just a few of those who rely on timely and accurate interpretation of the facts on the ground. One swiftly appreciates the enormous burden placed on the derisorily-named terp for success in any of their endeavours.”
Well said! He goes on to distinguish between the different types of terps. There are the
“terps working as liaison interpreters (LTs) i.e. ‘establishing communication links with other people’. First, there are the LTs hired by journalists and known as fixers. They organise interviews, accommodation, transport, security, and sources of fuel, electricity and satellite feeds; they gauge the tensions in specific villages or valleys; and provide constant up-dates on the shifting sensitivities and murderous nuances in real-time meetings with military and local leaders. Fixers are professional, but untrained, interpreters.”
In other words, they’re Native Interpreters.
Facilitating interpreters do the same job at conferences and business meetings, though at much less risk; they are ‘real’ professional interpreters.”
Presumably they’ve had some training.

Then there are the terps employed by the military and intelligence organisations.
“Military or intelligence terps, by contrast, are divided into two distinct sub-groups: ‘hyphenated’ Afghans with residence in the United States – unprofessional but fluent in the local languages and in English; and ‘native’ Afghans, hired locally and sometimes illiterate, but who are gifted with the ability to ingest and mimic the tongues of foreigners.”
The illiterate ones are perhaps close to being Natural Interpreters. There were many of them in the ‘first wave’ of recruits in 2001:
“The terps who rode with [the American] Special Forces in the north, clambered the slopes of Tora Bora, and persuaded tribal leaders in Kandahar and Uruzgan to rise against the Taliban were battle-scarred veterans with a little English… There are many examples of ‘first-wave’ terps deceiving their foreign allies into calling in airstrikes on private rivals, allegedly for being ‘Taliban’, or to break in their enemies’ doors. First-wave translators in 2001 were paid according to the number of intelligence tips they could provide.”
“A second generation of terps appeared after the arrival in Kandahar of 1,200 US Marines, a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain 1-27 Infantry between November and January 2002, and the consolidation of the ISAF contingent in Kabul around the same time. Competition between the military and aid sector for competent interpreters and translators was averted by the return of hundreds of English-speaking, Afghan graduates from Peshawar and other Pakistani cities where they had worked for NGOs unable to function under the Taliban’s restrictions. The flood of international agencies into Kabul after the overthrow of the movement rescued them from joblessness with open arms. Demand quickly outstripped supply, however, as USAID, the EU and other internationals laid out plans to rebuild Afghanistan’s highways, power and telecommunications, and their sub-contractors sought interpreters for their own sub-contractors: Turkish, Indian and Chinese road builders, US, British and South African security providers, and so on.
In Coalition eyes, the requirements were simple: native Dari, Pashtu or, preferably, both; functioning English, no known Taliban affiliation and the ability to catch on fast.
Aside from the returnees – whose skills had been honed by exposure to US slang from the videos and music banned under the Taliban – the main pools of talent were the run-down education system and private schools of English, business studies and computing. But only cosmopolitan Pashtu living in Kabul tended to have both languages.”
To be continued.

Miguel González. La juez envía a prisión al militar del Ejército del Aire acusado de filtrar un vídeo sobre Afganistán (Prison for the air force officer accused of leaking a video about Afghanistan). El País, Madrid, 6 July, 2011.

Michael Griffin. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan. London: Pluto Press, 2001. 272 p. Available from Amazon.

Michael Griffin. The go-betweens. In The Broken Road: America's War in Afghanistan, forthcoming. (The emphasis is mine.)

SSgt Northrup and LT Smith with their terp. Kilo 2nd Platoon Deployment Photos, 2010.,%20terp,%20LT%20Smith.htm

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Footnote to Fansubbers vs. Copyighters

A long Comment on the previous post takes me to task for not referencing the URL of Jemmainternational, the site from which I took the photo and the example of translation. So here it is:
Don’t confuse it with, which is something quite different.
Then there’s also Jenny and Emma International, which I did reference. “Confused yet?” asks Amidola, the commenter. Well yes, I’m befuddled.

Nevertheless, the correction makes me aware that I grossly understated the range of languages that the programme is translated into:
“I forget how many languages and people translate for Jenny and Emma International, but they had 22 languages, or something along those lines. We (Jemmainternational) have about 10 languages(including Indonesian, Greek and Japanese), last time I counted. Full eps [episodes] are done in four. (Since they're only up for a week, and most translate from the English, it's a time issue, mostly.) And we are completely independent from each other, which means, completely different groups of translators and translations, just imagine the amount of people behind this!… Sadly, the channel canceled the show, because of its lack [of faith?] in real-life TV.”
The Comment ends with another telling correction: “Translating Teen Speak is not as fun and easy as it maybe sounds.”

Thank you Amidola.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fansubbers vs. Copyrighters

Julie McDonough Dolmaya, of Toronto's York University, sends me an amusing but cautionary tale about fansubbers and the pitfalls of copyright. Fansubbers, in case you don't know, are
“people who painstakingly do their own translations and subtitles on programs they love, and then put them up on the Web on places like YouTube.”
As it's unpaid, most of them are Native Translators who’ve presumably learnt their skill from watching previous examples, although this is something that needs more research. (For other posts about them, enter fansubbing in the Search box on the right).

“What happens when you bring together the internet, a niche international fan base, and an obscure German soap opera… Hand aufs Herz (Hand on Heart)? Quite possibly, the future of television. It sounds harmless and probably good for publicity, right? Well, the broadcasters aren’t always so keen.”
The programme may not be a leading one in Germany, but it has a large international lesbian following. You can see why from the picture above and the following translated dialogue sample:
“First I was afraid but now I THINK: we will survive!
Because we’re talking about a revolution!

Hand aufs Herz, even if you seem to be a million miles away at the moment, there ain’t no mountain high enough and you’re in my sweet dreams - just the way you are - you are so beautiful, my genie in a bottle, my kiss from a rose.

No matter if I were a boy or a son of a preacherman, no matter if you want me to get the party started in English or fight for you in German: Nur mit dir macht fernsehen Spaß und wir werden keinen Zentimeter zurückweichen.” (The last sentence is left untranslated.)
There’s also subtitling in Italian as well as in Chinese, both traditional and simplified – though as someone comments, the dialogue is so simple that the double Chinese orthography is hardly necessary.

The complication in this case is that the fansubbers didn’t translate entire episodes. They selected just those portions that most interest a niche lesbian audience and packaged them together on their own website, ignoring other characters in the drama. The Jenny and Emma storyline was really intended to be only a secondary one. “Essentially they’re creating their own show out of an existing one,” and called it Jemma. Then the Herz auf Hand creators struck back. They invoked copyright and forced YouTube to remove all the Jemma clips. Of course bootleg copies abounded on other sites and blogs, but they too were forced off within hours, as was that of one poster who plaintively declared, “I own nothing. This is for non-profit. No copyright infringement intended.”

Finally, however, the outcry was so loud that the originating TV station, SAT1, caved in:
“SAT1 came up with an unprecedented plan: They set up a place on their official website where Jemma fans could watch every Jemma scene from the very beginning. And not just German fans — SAT1 decided not to geoblock the Jemma clips. Viewers from around the world are welcome to watch all Jemma scenes, and the last five full episodes.
When SAT1 launched the test phase of their viewing plan, fan sites got back to business. Jemma International set up a website offering translations for Jemma clips and for whole episodes. And Jenny and Emma International utilized the GreenFish Subtitle Player. You just load their translations into the program, and a semi-transparent subtitle window plays over the official Hand aufs Herz clips.”
The first moral of the story is obvious: fansubbers ought to check the copyright of the material they translate and make sure they have permission before they re-broadcast it. The second is that the fansubbing movement has become a rising tide that’s impossible to hold back, and that it especially benefits groups which might not appear attractive to commercial sponsors.

Julie McDonough Dolmaya’s own blog is at present showing some interesting preliminary data about the translators for Wikipedia. Go to the Blogging about translation and localization button in the list to the right.

The Art and Commerce of Fan Love. Spark 151, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation podcast, 2011.

Hand aufs Herz. Wikipedia, 2011.

Jenny and Emma International.
It gives German source clips and multilingual subtitles.

Heather Hogan. Glee, Hand aufs Herz fans demand more from lesbian TV storylines and get it. AfterEllen, “the pop culture site that plays for your team”, 2011.

Image: Photo from Lili-Fee.