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


  1. On the upside: very good posting on the different types of interpreters in the Iraqi and Afghan war zones. I learned something new today.

    On the downside: why do you call your blog "Unprofessional Translation"? The context and character of the postings are varied, but the term "unprofessional" lends them a very negative connotation, which shouldn't have escaped your keen eye.

    If your blog is about "Natural Translation, Native Translation and Language Brokering" as you claim it to be, rename it, because its title is disingenuous and insulting.

  2. Unprofessional Translation is the title of the blog and I find it quite original. It's got nothing to do with the article as such. My own blog is called "Lonely Translations". Take a look if you want, I am sure you will agree it's be no means boring as its title suggests :-)

    Great article I thought.

  3. To MChavez:

    You probably object to the title because you come to it as a professional translator yourself and see it as meaning ‘poor translation done by purported professionals’, whereas what I mean is ‘translating of any kind done by people who are not professionally trained‘. Yes, it’s ambiguous. I started to use it because I wanted to draw attention and wake people up, since a crushing majority of the writings about translation are about the Professional or at any rate the Expert kind, and that gives people a very slanted picture of human translating as a whole. The conference in Italy next May is called “First International Conference on NON-PROFESSIONAL Interpreting and translation.” Maybe you like that better. I do too as a technical term, but it wouldn’t have such an eye-catching impact.

  4. To englishtogermantranslator.

    The connection between the blog title and the post is that although the terps are Professional in the sense of being paid for their work, they start off without training or experience and most of them never do get training or professional qualifications. Hence they are Native or Natural translators.

    I’ve looked at your blog and liked it, and I’m listing it among my recommended ones.

    You’re right in what you say there about the advantage of subtitling for language learning. However, it imposes the disadvantage for viewers that they have to watch and decode both the subtitles and the screen image – hence two visual inputs – at the same time, so it requires more mental effort. That would help to explain the Polish preference, which is general. In any case, the decision to go for one or the other is basically INDUSTRIAL. As my colleague at the University of Valladolid, José-María Bravo, always insists in his writing about film translation, the cinema is an industry. Dubbing is much more expensive than subtitling, and therefore it requires bigger box office revenues. Hence it’s worth the Hollywood commercial distributors` while to dub for the Spanish-, French- and German-speaking markets, for example, but not for the Scandinavian or Balkan countries.