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.

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