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.”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.)
”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.”
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.