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.

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